Here is a hack for those of you writing a dissertation (or book, or other long form project) in plain text. Since I am writing my dissertation in Markdown and Pandoc, it’s easy to find out the word count for a chapter from the command line:

<span class="gp">$ </span>wc -w
I wanted to track my progress by regularly getting a word count for every chapter. To do that, I wrote a Bash script which runs `wc` and stores the data to a CSV file. Here is the script:
<span class="c">#!/bin/bash          </span>
<span class="nb">source</span> /Users/lmullen/.bash_profile

<span class=“nv”>EPOCH</span><span class=“o”>=</span><span class=“k”>$(</span>date +<span class=“s2”>"%s"</span><span class=“k”>)</span> <span class=“nv”>DATE</span><span class=“o”>=</span><span class=“k”>$(</span>date<span class=“k”>)</span> <span class=“nv”>WCCH1</span><span class=“o”>=</span><span class=“k”>$(</span>wc -w /Users/lmullen/acad/dissertation/ | sed <span class=“s1”>'s//Users/lmullen/acad/dissertation/'</span> | sed <span class=“s1”>'s/ //g'</span><span class=“k”>)</span> <span class=“nv”>WCCH2</span><span class=“o”>=</span><span class=“k”>$(</span>wc -w /Users/lmullen/acad/dissertation/ | sed <span class=“s1”>'s//Users/lmullen/acad/dissertation/'</span> | sed <span class=“s1”>'s/ //g'</span><span class=“k”>)</span> <span class=“nv”>WCCH3</span><span class=“o”>=</span><span class=“k”>$(</span>wc -w /Users/lmullen/acad/dissertation/ | sed <span class=“s1”>'s//Users/lmullen/acad/dissertation/'</span> | sed <span class=“s1”>'s/ //g'</span><span class=“k”>)</span> <span class=“nv”>WCCH4</span><span class=“o”>=</span><span class=“k”>$(</span>wc -w /Users/lmullen/acad/dissertation/ | sed <span class=“s1”>'s//Users/lmullen/acad/dissertation/'</span> | sed <span class=“s1”>'s/ //g'</span><span class=“k”>)</span> <span class=“nv”>WCCH5</span><span class=“o”>=</span><span class=“k”>$(</span>wc -w /Users/lmullen/acad/dissertation/ | sed <span class=“s1”>'s//Users/lmullen/acad/dissertation/'</span> | sed <span class=“s1”>'s/ //g'</span><span class=“k”>)</span> <span class=“nv”>WCCH6</span><span class=“o”>=</span><span class=“k”>$(</span>wc -w /Users/lmullen/acad/dissertation/ | sed <span class=“s1”>'s//Users/lmullen/acad/dissertation/'</span> | sed <span class=“s1”>'s/ //g'</span><span class=“k”>)</span> <span class=“nv”>WCCH7</span><span class=“o”>=</span><span class=“k”>$(</span>wc -w /Users/lmullen/acad/dissertation/ | sed <span class=“s1”>'s//Users/lmullen/acad/dissertation/'</span> | sed <span class=“s1”>'s/ //g'</span><span class=“k”>)</span> <span class=“nv”>WCCH8</span><span class=“o”>=</span><span class=“k”>$(</span>wc -w /Users/lmullen/acad/dissertation/ | sed <span class=“s1”>'s//Users/lmullen/acad/dissertation/'</span> | sed <span class=“s1”>'s/ //g'</span><span class=“k”>)</span> <span class=“nv”>WCPRE</span><span class=“o”>=</span><span class=“k”>$(</span>wc -w /Users/lmullen/acad/dissertation/ | sed <span class=“s1”>'s//Users/lmullen/acad/dissertation/'</span> | sed <span class=“s1”>'s/ //g'</span><span class=“k”>)</span> <span class=“nv”>WCINTRO</span><span class=“o”>=</span><span class=“k”>$(</span>wc -w /Users/lmullen/acad/dissertation/ | sed <span class=“s1”>'s//Users/lmullen/acad/dissertation/'</span> | sed <span class=“s1”>'s/ //g'</span><span class=“k”>)</span> <span class=“nv”>WCCONCL</span><span class=“o”>=</span><span class=“k”>$(</span>wc -w /Users/lmullen/acad/dissertation/ | sed <span class=“s1”>'s//Users/lmullen/acad/dissertation/'</span> | sed <span class=“s1”>'s/ //g'</span><span class=“k”>)</span> <span class=“nb”>echo</span> <span class=“nv”>$EPOCH</span>,<span class=“nv”>$DATE</span>,<span class=“nv”>$WCCH1</span>,<span class=“nv”>$WCCH2</span>,<span class=“nv”>$WCCH3</span>,<span class=“nv”>$WCCH4</span>,<span class=“nv”>$WCCH5</span>,<span class=“nv”>$WCCH6</span>,<span class=“nv”>$WCCH7</span>,<span class=“nv”>$WCCH8</span>,<span class=“nv”>$WCPRE</span>,<span class=“nv”>$WCINTRO</span>,<span class=“nv”>$WCCONCL</span> >> /Users/lmullen/acad/dissertation/wordcount-data.csv

First, the script finds out the date in two formats (lines 4--5), the Unix "epoch" time (or number of seconds since midnight on January 1, 1970) and a human readable time. I thought I should store both since I didn't know which would be most useful later on. Second, the script counts the number of words in each chapter and in the front matter and back matter. It also strips away all of the output from that command except the word count itself (lines 6--16). Someone with better scripting skills than me could probably compress those eleven lines into one or two. Finally, the script appends a line with the data to a CSV file (line 17).

When the script is executed, it returns data like this (from the very first line in my data file):

1332736387,Mon Mar 26 00:33:07 EDT 2012,0,0,0,12412,0,0,0,0,0,0,0
As you can see, by March 26 I had written 12,412 words for chapter 4, and not much else. Apparently I also wrote this script after midnight.

I run the script automatically each hour by adding this line to my crontab:

0   <span class="k">*</span>   <span class="k">*</span>   <span class="k">*</span>   <span class="k">*</span>   /Users/lmullen/acad/dissertation/
I haven't done much with the data yet, but the point is to collect it while I am writing. It's easy enough to open the CSV file in Excel and generate graphs of my progress. Eventually I may also analyze the data in [R](

Gathering the data is one problem. Getting the word counts to increase at an acceptable pace is another problem altogether.

[I have been asked to participate in an orientation for new teaching fellows at Brandeis University. As part of the panel, I am supposed to speak for five minutes on the topic, “one piece of advice that you wish you had known before you started teaching.” These are the remarks I intend to give, which are similar to a post I wrote for ProfHacker on a related theme. I will be glad for any critiques.]

Good morning. My name is Lincoln Mullen, and I am a graduate student in the history department. I have been a teaching fellow for five Brandeis history courses, two with David Hackett Fischer and one each with Govind Sreenivasan, David Engerman, and Xing Hang.

I have been asked to give you one piece of advice that I wish I had known before I started teaching, and so I offer you a principle which I learned from the professors I worked with, sometimes by word, sometimes by example.

To state it briefly: You should regard your teaching and all other interactions with students as a moral relationship governed by moral principles.

As new teachers you likely have a dozen questions about how to grade papers, when to hand them back, what to wear, and other details of teaching, all of which we will address in a few minutes. But for now, step back from the minutia, and consider your role as a whole. Let me explain what I mean by saying teaching should be a moral relationship governed by moral principles.

We could show that teaching is primarily a relationship from research into pedagogy, much of which argues that learning depends on whether students and teachers cultivate a relationship. But instead we can prove this empirically, because you will feel and act like you are in a relationship. Over the sixteen weeks of the semester, you will get to know your students, and they you. Some of them you will come to admire and respect; for others … it will be otherwise. But good or bad, you will have a relationship with all your students.

So why do I say that your relationship is moral? We could say that you have a professional relationship with your students. Though that is true, it is insufficient, because professional ethics are only supplemental to moral codes. The professional ethics which are peculiar (in both sense of the term) to the academy govern the cases which are unique to the academy, for example, plagiarism. But there is a danger that you will think that if you have fulfilled the letter of your professional obligations, you have fulfilled the spirit of your moral obligations. In other words, it is not helpful to think of your relationship as just professional, because those obligations are spelled out for you. What you need to think about is how your relationship to your students is full of the same moral complexities as any human relationship.

There is no reason to shy away from calling the teaching relationship moral in the context of the secular academy, since Brandeis is as much a liberal arts college as it is a research university, and part of the tradition of the liberal arts and their colleges is the inculcation of virtue.

If the teacher-student relationship is first of all moral, it follows that you should apply your moral principles to the relationship. For me, the moral principle is “you shall shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I hold to that ethic because it was taught by Jesus in the Gospels, but you might hold it because it is found in the Torah, or in Confucius, or you might hold to some other principle entirely. My point is not which moral principles you should choose, but that you should practice your moral principles in the teaching.

What does it look like in practice to love your students as yourself? Let’s see how that ethic gives helps us answer some questions about the details of teaching.

  • How should I interact with students? You must learn their names, and use them. Permit them to get to know you; get to know them as much as they permit.

  • How should I comment on student papers? Your comments should always be charitable in wording and intent, and should engage seriously with the argument the student intended to make.

  • How should I dress? Whatever you wear should convey seriousness about the subject and respect for the students. For me that is almost always a jacket and tie, but I’m stodgy. You can find a different way to convey the same meaning.

  • How available to the students should I be? You will have to pick office hours and set expectations for communication that fit your needs, but whatever you do, your students should feel that you are available, not unavailable.

  • Which students need my help? You can only help the students who want to be helped, and you’ll spend most of your time helping the students who ask to be helped. But you have an obligation to all of your students, and should go out of your way to try to help all of them.

  • What should I do when students say or do funny things? By all means have a good laugh to yourself when students make amusing mistakes in their papers. But never post those mistakes online, or anywhere else.

  • What should I do in dubious situations? You’ll encounter situations when you doubt that a student is being honest. But always assume and hope that your student has the best motives and intent, because “love … does not envy. … Love hopes all things, endures all things.”

  • How much time should I spend on being a TF? Do not shortchange your own work, but be willing to give—not spend—more time to your students than you expect, because you are putting their needs before your own.

As a teaching fellow I did not always—or even often—succeed at cultivating teaching relationships as moral relationships. After turning in some uncharitable grades, a professor encouraged me to rethink my interactions with students in exactly these moral terms. So the lesson that I learned is that the most important thing you can do as a teacher is subject all your interactions to moral discipline.

When people find out I’m a graduate student, they often say something to the effect, “You must sit around all day thinking big thoughts.” It occurs to me that the opposite is true. Amateurs think big thoughts; professionals think little thoughts. An amateur has the luxury of thinking primarily about the most important, highest level questions. In economics, say, an amateur can opine without data about what has caused a recession or what will fix it, but it is the professional economist or financier who spends days crunching the numbers.

Of course, this idea shouldn’t be taken too far. Professionals do eventually put those little thoughts into big thoughts, which then guide them as they think more little thoughts. Amateurs often spend a great deal of energy in getting the details right: just talk to any Civil War re-enactor. But I think that the general principle holds true.

Just a little thought I had.

For my dissertation, I am researching the lives of converts from the nineteenth century. Some people who converted left behind an enormous source base. Orestes Brownson converted from Congregationalism to Presbyterianism to Universalism to Unitarianism to Transcendentalism to Catholicism, publishing voluminously all along the way. For other converts, I can find the barest of mentions in a newspaper or collection of papers. The dissertation needs to get both at the experience of well-known, articulate converts like Brownson, and lesser- or unknown converts. To retrieve that second kind of experience, I want to try analyzing all the conversions as data.

As I compile my research, I want to use it for two purposes. First, I need regular research notes to use when writing the dissertation. Second, I’d like to use the research as data, which I’ll analyze from some unknown tool (maybe Ruby). I have an idea of some of the questions that I’ll ask: How many people converted from X to Y? How likely were converts who were clergy in one religion likely to become clergy in another? How were conversions distributed over time? over space? But I won’t know which questions can be investigated programmatically or what the data to answer them will look like until I’ve done substantially more research.

The idea: use YAML to model lives and events

With that research problem in mind, I’ve drawn up a list of specifications for what my data model should look like.

  1. The data must be human-readable and -writable as research notes.
  2. The data model must be able to grow organically as I do the research.
  3. The data model must be able to hold large amounts of undigested text as notes.
  4. The data must be portable to other formats, possible JSON or XML/TEI.
My idea is to use [YAML]( as the format for the data. YAML is a "human friendly data serialization standard for all programming languages." YAML's two top priorities are "YAML is easily readable by humans" and "YAML data is portable between programming languages," which match my own priorities. I'm familiar with YAML from using [Jekyll]( for this blog and [another web project]( YAML also fits well into the principles I learned from [*Linux and the Unix Philosophy*](, especially "store data in flat text files."

Example YAML model and Ruby script

I’ve created a working example with two YAML files and a Ruby script to output some of the data. I’ve shared the example as a Gist on GitHub.

The YAML file for Orestes Brownson is below, and there is another sample file for Charles Wharton in the Gist. You’ll notice that at the outermost level of indentation, there are keys and values for basic biographical information, such as born: 1803-09-16. The most important part of the model is the list of conversions, which is a YAML array as signaled by the - character and indentation. The markup for the notes field (notes: >) lets that field contain as many paragraphs as necessary. Finally, the source array has one value (@carey_orestes_2004) which is the key to an entry in my BibTeX database, which I’ve added with Vim’s autocomplete function.

<span class="c1"># A model of a convert's life</span>
<span class="nn">---</span>
<span class="s">name-last</span>       <span class="pi">:</span> <span class="s">Brownson</span>
<span class="s">name-first</span>      <span class="pi">:</span> <span class="s">Orestes Augustus</span>
<span class="s">born</span>            <span class="pi">:</span> <span class="s">1803-09-16</span>
<span class="s">died</span>            <span class="pi">:</span> <span class="s">1876-04-17</span>
<span class="s">birth-religion</span>  <span class="pi">:</span> <span class="s">Congregationalism</span>

<span class=“s”>conversions</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span>

<span class=“pi”>-</span> <span class=“s”>origin-religion</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“s”>Congregationalism</span> <span class=“s”>destination-religion</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“s”>Presbyterianism</span> <span class=“s”>date</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“s”>1822</span> <span class=“s”>ritual</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“s”>church membership</span> <span class=“s”>citation</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“s”>ANB</span> <span class=“s”>notes</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“pi”>></span> <span class=“no”>Brownson's change to congregationalism was more denominational </span> <span class=“no”>switching than a change in conscience.</span>

<span class=“pi”>-</span> <span class=“s”>origin-religion</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“s”>Presbyterianism</span> <span class=“s”>destination-religion</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“s”>Universalism</span> <span class=“s”>date</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“s”>1826</span> <span class=“s”>ritual</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“s”>ordination</span> <span class=“s”>location</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“s2”>"</span><span class=“s”>Jaffrey,</span><span class=“nv”> </span><span class=“s”>New</span><span class=“nv”> </span><span class=“s”>Hampshire"</span> <span class=“s”>citation</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“s”>ANB</span> <span class=“s”>notes</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“pi”>></span> <span class=“no”>“He would later refer to his years in this fold as 'the most </span> <span class=“no”>anti-Christian period of my life'” (ANB).</span>

  &lt;span class="no">Brownson was editor of _The Gospel Advocate and Impartial &lt;/span>
  &lt;span class="no">Investigator_, a Universalist publication.&lt;/span>

<span class=“pi”>-</span> <span class=“s”>origin-religion</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“s”>Universalism</span> <span class=“s”>destination-religion</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“s”>Unitarianism</span> <span class=“s”>ritual</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“s”>further research</span> <span class=“s”>location</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“s2”>"</span><span class=“s”>Walpole,</span><span class=“nv”> </span><span class=“s”>New</span><span class=“nv”> </span><span class=“s”>Hampshire"</span> <span class=“s”>citation</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“s”>ANB</span> <span class=“s”>notes</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“pi”>></span> <span class=“no”>Brownson spent some time at Brook Farm, which prepared him for </span> <span class=“no”>Transcendentalism</span>

<span class=“pi”>-</span> <span class=“s”>origin-religion</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“s”>Unitarianism and Transcendentalism</span> <span class=“s”>destination-religion</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“s”>Catholicism</span> <span class=“s”>date</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“s”>1844-10-19</span> <span class=“s”>ritual</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“s”>baptism</span> <span class=“s”>citation</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“s”>ANB</span> <span class=“s”>notes</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“pi”>></span> <span class=“no”>Brownson studied after his conversion with a Sulpician priest.</span>

<span class=“s”>source</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“pi”>-</span> <span class=“err”>@</span><span class=“s”>carey_orestes_2004</span> <span class=“pi”>-</span> <span class=“s”>American National Biography</span>

<span class=“s”>comments</span> <span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“pi”>></span> <span class=“no”>This is a minimal example of what a model of a convert might look </span> <span class=“no”>like. The historical data is hastily gathered, so only the model is </span> <span class=“no”>of interest here.</span>

<span class=“no”>N.B. I would like to replace the citations with BibTeX keys.</span> <span class=“nn”>…</span>

I had to prove to myself that I could get at the data programmatically, so I wrote the Ruby script below. It's just a proof-of-concept, and it's the first Ruby script I've written, so there are ugly parts. The script creates a class `Converts`, which loads an array of YAML files into a hash. The class has a few methods to display the names of the converts and a list of all the conversions. Doubtless there are more interesting things that can be done.
<span class="c1">#!/usr/bin/env ruby</span>
<span class="c1"># A proof-of-concept script that outputs some simple data from YAML </span>
<span class="c1"># files modeling conversions</span>
<span class="c1">#</span>
<span class="c1"># Author:: Lincoln Mullen (</span>

<span class=“nb”>require</span> <span class=“s1”>'yaml'</span>

<span class=“c1”># This class loads data from YAML files, and outputs some values</span>

<span class=“k”>class</span> <span class=“nc”>Converts</span>

<span class=“kp”>attr_accessor</span> <span class=“ss”>:files</span><span class=“p”>,</span> <span class=“ss”>:data</span>

<span class=“k”>def</span> <span class=“nf”>initialize</span> <span class=“p”>(</span><span class=“n”>files</span> <span class=“o”>=</span> <span class=“kp”>nil</span><span class=“p”>,</span> <span class=“n”>data</span> <span class=“o”>=</span> <span class=“kp”>nil</span><span class=“p”>)</span> <span class=“vi”>@files</span> <span class=“o”>=</span> <span class=“n”>files</span> <span class=“vi”>@data</span> <span class=“o”>=</span> <span class=“no”>Hash</span><span class=“p”>.</span><span class=“nf”>new</span>

&lt;span class="k">if&lt;/span> &lt;span class="vi">@files&lt;/span>&lt;span class="p">.&lt;/span>&lt;span class="nf">nil?&lt;/span>
  &lt;span class="nb">puts&lt;/span> &lt;span class="s2">"You didn&#39;t pass me any files."&lt;/span>
&lt;span class="k">elsif&lt;/span> &lt;span class="vi">@files&lt;/span>&lt;span class="p">.&lt;/span>&lt;span class="nf">respond_to?&lt;/span>&lt;span class="p">(&lt;/span>&lt;span class="s2">"each"&lt;/span>&lt;span class="p">)&lt;/span>
  &lt;span class="c1"># walk through the array of files, creating a hash with the &lt;/span>
  &lt;span class="c1"># file name as the key and the file data as the value&lt;/span>
  &lt;span class="vi">@files&lt;/span>&lt;span class="p">.&lt;/span>&lt;span class="nf">each&lt;/span> &lt;span class="k">do&lt;/span> &lt;span class="o">|&lt;/span>&lt;span class="n">file&lt;/span>&lt;span class="o">|&lt;/span>
    &lt;span class="vi">@data&lt;/span>&lt;span class="p">[&lt;/span>&lt;span class="n">file&lt;/span>&lt;span class="p">]&lt;/span> &lt;span class="o">=&lt;/span> &lt;span class="no">YAML&lt;/span>&lt;span class="p">.&lt;/span>&lt;span class="nf">load_file&lt;/span>&lt;span class="p">(&lt;/span> &lt;span class="n">file&lt;/span> &lt;span class="p">)&lt;/span>
  &lt;span class="k">end&lt;/span>
&lt;span class="k">end&lt;/span>

<span class=“k”>end</span>

<span class=“c1”># output the hash we can see what we're working with</span> <span class=“k”>def</span> <span class=“nf”>display_raw</span> <span class=“nb”>puts</span> <span class=“s2”>"</span><span class=“se”>\n</span><span class=“s2”>This is the raw data we have loaded:"</span> <span class=“nb”>p</span><span class=“p”>(</span> <span class=“vi”>@data</span> <span class=“p”>)</span> <span class=“k”>end</span>

<span class=“c1”># walk through the hash, outputting the names of each person</span> <span class=“k”>def</span> <span class=“nf”>display_names</span> <span class=“nb”>puts</span> <span class=“s2”>"</span><span class=“se”>\n</span><span class=“s2”>These people converted:"</span> <span class=“vi”>@data</span><span class=“p”>.</span><span class=“nf”>each_key</span> <span class=“k”>do</span> <span class=“o”>|</span><span class=“n”>key</span><span class=“o”>|</span> <span class=“nb”>puts</span> <span class=“s2”>" - </span><span class=“si”>#{</span><span class=“vi”>@data</span><span class=“p”>[</span><span class=“n”>key</span><span class=“p”>][</span><span class=“s2”>“name-first”</span><span class=“p”>]</span><span class=“si”>}</span><span class=“s2”> </span><span class=“si”>#{</span><span class=“vi”>@data</span><span class=“p”>[</span><span class=“n”>key</span><span class=“p”>][</span><span class=“s2”>“name-last”</span><span class=“p”>]</span><span class=“si”>}</span><span class=“s2”>"</span> <span class=“k”>end</span> <span class=“k”>end</span>

<span class=“c1”># walk through the hash, outputting the names and conversions of </span> <span class=“c1”># each person</span> <span class=“k”>def</span> <span class=“nf”>display_conversions</span> <span class=“nb”>puts</span> <span class=“s2”>"</span><span class=“se”>\n</span><span class=“s2”>We know about these conversions:"</span> <span class=“vi”>@data</span><span class=“p”>.</span><span class=“nf”>each_key</span> <span class=“k”>do</span> <span class=“o”>|</span><span class=“n”>key</span><span class=“o”>|</span> <span class=“nb”>puts</span> <span class=“s2”>" - </span><span class=“si”>#{</span><span class=“vi”>@data</span><span class=“p”>[</span><span class=“n”>key</span><span class=“p”>][</span><span class=“s2”>“name-first”</span><span class=“p”>]</span><span class=“si”>}</span><span class=“s2”> </span><span class=“si”>#{</span><span class=“vi”>@data</span><span class=“p”>[</span><span class=“n”>key</span><span class=“p”>][</span><span class=“s2”>“name-last”</span><span class=“p”>]</span><span class=“si”>}</span><span class=“s2”>:"</span> <span class=“c1”># each person has an array of conversions (even if there is </span> <span class=“c1”># only one conversion)</span> <span class=“vi”>@data</span><span class=“p”>[</span><span class=“n”>key</span><span class=“p”>][</span><span class=“s2”>“conversions”</span><span class=“p”>].</span><span class=“nf”>each</span> <span class=“p”>{</span> <span class=“o”>|</span><span class=“n”>conversion</span><span class=“o”>|</span> <span class=“nb”>puts</span> <span class=“s2”>" + From </span><span class=“si”>#{</span><span class=“n”>conversion</span><span class=“p”>[</span><span class=“s2”>“origin-religion”</span><span class=“p”>]</span><span class=“si”>}</span><span class=“s2”> to </span><span class=“si”>#{</span><span class=“n”>conversion</span><span class=“p”>[</span><span class=“s2”>“destination-religion”</span><span class=“p”>]</span><span class=“si”>}</span><span class=“s2”> by </span><span class=“si”>#{</span><span class=“n”>conversion</span><span class=“p”>[</span><span class=“s2”>“ritual”</span><span class=“p”>]</span><span class=“si”>}</span><span class=“s2”> in </span><span class=“si”>#{</span><span class=“n”>conversion</span><span class=“p”>[</span><span class=“s2”>“date”</span><span class=“p”>]</span><span class=“si”>}</span><span class=“s2”>."</span> <span class=“p”>}</span> <span class=“k”>end</span> <span class=“k”>end</span>

<span class=“k”>end</span>

<span class=“c1”># get sample data by loading every YAML file in the directory</span> <span class=“nb”>puts</span> <span class=“s2”>“Let's load all the YAML files in this directory:"</span> <span class=“nb”>puts</span> <span class=“no”>Dir</span><span class=“p”>.</span><span class=“nf”>glob</span><span class=“p”>(</span> <span class=“s1”>'.yml'</span><span class=“p”>).</span><span class=“nf”>join</span><span class=“p”>(</span><span class=“s1”>', '</span><span class=“p”>)</span> <span class=“n”>c</span> <span class=“o”>=</span> <span class=“no”>Converts</span><span class=“p”>.</span><span class=“nf”>new</span><span class=“p”>(</span><span class=“no”>Dir</span><span class=“p”>.</span><span class=“nf”>glob</span><span class=“p”>(</span><span class=“s1”>'.yml'</span><span class=“p”>))</span>

<span class=“c1”># call the methods to display the names and conversions</span> <span class=“n”>c</span><span class=“p”>.</span><span class=“nf”>display_names</span> <span class=“n”>c</span><span class=“p”>.</span><span class=“nf”>display_conversions</span>

If you run the script on the sample YAML files, you get the output below. (Yes---the script does output in [Markdown]( I only know one trick.)
Let<span class="s1">'s load all the YAML files in this directory:
brownson-orestes.yml, wharton-charles.yml

These people converted:

  • Charles Wharton
  • Orestes Augustus Brownson

We know about these conversions:

  • Charles Wharton:
    • From Catholicism to Church of England by conformity in .
  • Orestes Augustus Brownson:
    • From Congregationalism to Presbyterianism by church membership in 1822.
    • From Presbyterianism to Universalism by ordination in 1826.
    • From Universalism to Unitarianism by further research in .
    • From Unitarianism and Transcendentalism to Catholicism by baptism in 1844-10-19.</span>
#### What's next?

If this model works for modeling conversions, it should also work for modeling other kinds of historical events. For example, suppose a labor historian is researching strikes and kept a YAML file for each strike …

<span class="s">id:</span><span class="err">    </span><span class="s">Pullman strike</span>
<span class="s">location</span><span class="pi">:</span> <span class="s">Pullman, Illinois</span>
<span class="s">date</span><span class="pi">:</span> <span class="s">1894-05-11</span>
<span class="s">corporations</span><span class="pi">:</span>
<span class="s">-</span><span class="err">  </span><span class="s">Pullman Palace Car Company</span>
<span class="s">unions</span><span class="pi">:</span>
<span class="s">-</span><span class="err">  </span><span class="s">American Railway Union</span>
<span class="s">accounts</span><span class="pi">:</span>

<span class=“s”>-</span><span class=“err”> </span><span class=“s”>name</span><span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“s”>John A. Doe</span> <span class=“err”> </span><span class=“s”>source</span><span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“s”>Chicago Tribune</span> <span class=“err”> </span><span class=“s”>description</span><span class=“pi”>:</span> <span class=“pi”>></span> <span class=“err”> </span><span class=“no”>“Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Mauris</span> <span class=“err”> </span><span class=“no”>malesuada, purus vel posuere aliquam, enim orci tempor quam, ac</span> <span class=“err”> </span><span class=“no”>rutrum arcu arcu nec leo."</span>

<span class=“err”>-</span><span class=“no”> name: Jane B. Doe</span> <span class=“err”> </span><span class=“no”>source: New York Times</span> <span class=“err”> </span><span class=“no”>description: ></span> <span class=“err”> </span><span class=“no”>“Maecenas in velit nulla, pretium vestibulum lacus. Morbi dui purus,</span> <span class=“err”> </span><span class=“no”>imperdiet ac aliquam sodales, gravida ut diam. Vestibulum nec erat a</span> <span class=“err”> </span><span class=“no”>ligula tincidunt dignissim in et diam. Quisque tincidunt</span> <span class=“err”> </span><span class=“no”>pellentesque lorem, a scelerisque quam lacinia vitae."</span>

and another for each union ...
<span class="s">union</span><span class="pi">:</span> <span class="s">American Railway Union</span>
<span class="s">leaders:</span><span class="err">   </span>
<span class="err">  </span><span class="s">-</span><span class="err">   </span><span class="s">name</span><span class="pi">:</span> <span class="s">Eugene V. Debs</span>
<span class="err">      </span><span class="s">start</span><span class="pi">:</span> <span class="s">1893-06-20</span>
<span class="err">      </span><span class="s">end</span><span class="pi">:</span> <span class="s">~</span>
<span class="s">founded</span><span class="pi">:</span>
<span class="err">  </span><span class="s">date</span><span class="pi">:</span> <span class="s">1893-06-20</span>
<span class="err">  </span><span class="s">place</span><span class="pi">:</span> <span class="s">Chicago, Illinois</span>
I asked about this idea at [Digital Humanities Questions & Answers]( and on Twitter. [Chad Black](, [Ben Brumfield](, Ethan Gruber, [Caleb McDaniel](, and Conal Tuohy offered valuable advice about how to think about this problem and what tools might be helpful later in the project. The [TEI]( markup for an [event]( and [person]( (recommended by Conal) seems promising because it can accommodate types of data that I know I'll need, such as uncertain dates and name changes.

For now, though, I’m going to work with YAML, since I can get started on it right away and since I’m completely sure it will work as research notes and reasonably sure it can be munged into another format later.

I’ll be glad for any advice about how to improve the data model or script and about what considerations I should think about to make sure the data is useful. If you have any ideas about what to do with the data once I’ve gathered it, I’ll be glad for those too.

After I returned from the AHA/ASCH annual meeting this January, I broke ground on my dissertation. My goal is to turn out a rough draft of a chapter every three months. For this first chapter to be drafted, I was helped in meeting the deadline by the fact that I’ve been scheduled to present the draft at a history department faculty/grad workshop in April. I sent draft to my committee on Monday, and I’ll send it to the history department later this week.

The first chapter that I’ve written will be the fourth chapter of the dissertation. It is a history of Cherokee conversions to Christianity in the first four decades of the nineteenth century.

A challenge for this chapter—as I expect it will be for every chapter—was telling a complete story in a very small frame. There is a good reason why very few histories of American religion outside surveys try to deal with multiple religious traditions at once. I tried to solve this problem by focusing on a few converts and then describing Cherokee conversions more generally. This technique was also necessary to give a narrative line to the chapter.

In thinking about what conversion meant for Cherokee Christians, I was especially helped by an essay written by Leigh Eric Schmidt: “Practices of Exchange: From Market Culture to Gift Economy in the Interpretation of American Religion,” in Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice, ed. David D. Hall (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 69–91. I haven’t seen this essay cited or used elsewhere in American religious history, but Schmidt’s ideas in this essay have much interpretative power.

Briefly, Schmidt argues that historians have mostly seen American religion as a competitive marketplace, but religion is replete with the ideas about gifts. Religion functions as a gift economy—even if it also functions as or within a market economy.

In reading the records of the Moravian mission at Springplace in Georgia, and the ABCFM mission at Brainerd in Tennessee, I was struck by the observation that missionaries and Cherokee alike experienced the gift economy as a material reality. (Maybe I’ve been reading too much Marx recently, but I keep looking for economic, material realities at the root of things.) The missions and the nearby inhabitants often did not have enough, let alone a surplus for market transactions. The missions had an obligation to be hospitable. And of course, the missions were able to function because they were recipients of gifts from churches and benevolent associations. It makes sense to me, then, to look at Cherokee conversions within the context of both a market and a gift economy.

Zehnder, David J. A Theology of Religious Change: What the Social Science of Conversion Means for the Gospel. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2011. xxii + 179 pages. ISBN: 978-1-61097-359-5.

Religious conversion is a topic of interest to many domains of knowledge. Historians, social scientists, philosophers, and theologians of every creed have studied and attempted to explain conversion. David Zehnder is the rare theologian—or scholar of any discipline—who has done the difficult work of crossing disciplinary boundaries to bring back the fruits of disciplines not his own. The title of his book, A Theology of Religious Change: What the Social Science of the Conversion Means for the Gospel indicates that Zehnder is a net importer of ideas, and contributing back to the social sciences is not on his agenda. He is interested in the pastoral, apologetic uses to which social scientific findings can be put. But his primary task is to mine the psychological and sociological literature on conversion in an attempt to resolve one of theology’s most longstanding questions: “the problem of why one person believes the gospel and another does not” (141).

This “theologian’s cross” is the question of how to reconcile the human and the divine role in salvation. Zehnder’s study of divinity has given him a firm position on the question of God’s role in salvation. He subscribes to a theology of monergism—the belief that God is the only active agent in salvation—that initially drew him to the theological question of predestination, and which shapes the opening and concluding chapters on theology as well many of the observations about the social science of conversion in the middle five chapters.

But Zehnder is also willing to study the human side of conversion, and has set upon the social sciences, especially sociology and psychology, as the best way to approach questions. Reconciling the social sciences and theology requires a theory of how those domains of knowledge relate to one another. This book takes a “correlational” approach that “holds theological and scientific claims in tension as different explanatory means that cannot directly contradict one another” (xv). This theory has its merits, but Zehnder is unable to consistently follow it because he does occasionally find that social science contradicts his theology.

Chapters two through six, which present the findings of social science on various topics, all follow the same pattern. A brief theological or pastoral introduction is followed by an extensive review of social scientific literature, after which Zehnder reflects on the use of the social science for pastoral concerns and its implications for theology. The book summarizes social scientific research on religious change, transformations of individuals, parental influences, ideology, and social ties as they relate to conversion. These summaries of social science read like so many literature reviews, though the book is at least more readable than many of the studies it summarizes. More problematic is the tendency to treat most research as equally valid, which flattens out the debates and disagreements within social science. But it is in his pastoral reflections on social science that Zehnder offers his most useful contribution.

The book’s contributions to theology are more troublesome. The assumption of monergism forces Zehnder to depart from his “correlational” model whenever the findings of social science contradict that central tenet. In chapter three, he correctly concludes that most social scientific research concludes that conversion is “activist”—that is, that people who convert tend to be “active seekers.” This poses a problem for both Zehnder’s method and his theology: “The active conversion is probably sociology’s most direct challenge to monergistic theology which holds that conversion is not . . . ‘a personal accomplishment’” (52–53). For Zehnder, this raises the question “whether active seekers could think that they have chosen the gospel out of a pure act of will and still have the gospel at all” (53). To his credit, Zehnder tries to take a middle road on this question, but still calls the church to action: “the church cannot view active conversion as a normative viewpoint . . . and must continually offer its corrective” (54).

This conclusion is unsurprising and unobjectionable, if one accepts the premise of monergism. But for any Christian tradition for which monergism and election are not the central preoccupations, the question is not a live one and an opportunity has been missed. A more rigorous application of Zehnder’s own correlational model would have found much more use in social science’s findings about active conversion.

In sum, readers who are not concerned with the theological problems implied by monergism, or who are inclined to see salvation as a human choice as well as a divine choice, are not likely to find the theological issues discussed in this book to be live questions. Readers who are inclined to agree with Zehnder that theology is a divine choice will find Zehnder’s theological reasonings informed by social science to be intriguing. I hope they will also find them salutary, for Zehnder’s willingness to approach both sides of the question should be applauded. And all readers can find his desire to turn “theology’s attention away from unsolvable mysteries and toward the question of how the church can communicate to people’s needs” (141), as well as his helpful suggestions to that end, to be profitable.

Maffly-Kipp, Laurie F., ed. American Scriptures: An Anthology of Sacred Writings. New York: Penguin Books, 2010. 406 pages. ISBN: 0143106198.

In his chapter on “Reading” in Walden, Henry David Thoreau complained, “As for the sacred Scriptures, or Bibles of mankind, who in this town can tell me even their titles? Most men do not know that any nation but the Hebrews have had a scripture.” Thoreau is likely as correct about our day as he was about his own. But teachers of the history of American religion and religious studies can correct the error for American sacred writings at least, thanks to Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp’s new collection, American Scriptures: An Anthology of Sacred Writings.

In this affordable paperback, published by Penguin Classics, Maffly-Kipp collects sacred texts written and published in the United States. These texts capture some of the religious diversity and creativity of American religion. The book contains a bewildering array of religious traditions: rational religion, the Latter-Day Saints, Shakers, Spiritualists, black Methodists, Christian Scientists, Seventh-day Adventists, Theosophists, feminists, traditions influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism. Some of the books were unpublished or virtually unknown in their own day; others were massive bestsellers. The collection contains some well-known texts, helpfully extracted, such as Joseph Smith’s The Book of Mormon, Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible. It also contains texts very difficult to find elsewhere.

But for all the diversity, there are several important similarities across the text. All but one text is from the nineteenth century, beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (1819–20) and ending with Levi H. Dowling’s The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ (1907)—a century or so of religious creativity expressed in sacred texts. But more important, almost all of these texts are an interpretation of Jesus of Nazareth. This collection of texts would work well paired with Richard Wightman Fox’s Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession or Stephen R. Prothero’s American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, to allow students to compare the cultural history of Jesus across religious traditions and over time.

The one limitation of the text is that it is a collection of scriptures written in America, not scriptures used in America. So the most religiously and culturally significant scriptures in America, such as the King James Bible, the Tanakh and Talmud, the Qu’ran, and the Vedas and Upanishads, are unrepresented. This is hardly a fault, since those texts are readily available elsewhere, but in designing a course one would have to take it into account. Then too, the collection can give little sense of the material culture of these texts. There are some intriguing hints: Thomas Jefferson cutting and pasting his revision of the Gospels; John Ballou Newbrough writting OAHSPE on “a novel device called a typewriter” as the angels guided his hands. Again, it would be unreasonable to expect this volume to tackle the material aspect of the texts. But an enterprising scholar, taking a cue from this collection and from Colleen McDannell’s Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America, could do intriguing work on the material culture of sacred texts in the United States.

Full disclosure: At the AHA, Penguin gave me a free book-bag for buying more books than were in my budget, but no compensation for this blog post.

Schwartz, Stuart B. All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-300-15854-0.

The early modern Atlantic world, in Iberia as well as in Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the New World, was home to an enormous religious diversity. A simple catalog of the religions that Stuart Schwartz mentions in his book All Can Be Saved gives some idea of how diverse the Atlantic world was: Catholic Christianity, in both its pre- and post-Tridentine formulations; Judaism; Islam; Protestant Christianity, especially Dutch Reformed, French Huguenot, and German Lutheran Protestants; African animist religions; Native American animist religions; European traditions of magic and the occult; and skepticism and unbelief. Of course religious belief as actually held seldom fell into such systematic categories, and Schwartz discusses many kinds of forced and voluntary religious intermingling, among which were Jews and Muslims who converted to Christianity, Old Christians who layered Catholicism on top of folk religions or skepticism, Native Americans and Africans who mixed Christianity with their traditional religions, and Christians who were influenced by Native American and African religions or converted to Islam or Judaism. The question that motivates Schwartz’s study is this: Out of that religious milieu, how did many Iberian Christians come to hold the proposition that “each person can be saved in his or her own religion” (epigraph)? Put another way, how did toleration develop out of religious conflict?

Scholars studying the history of toleration or the confessionalization of Europe have given several answers to that question. Some have traced the rise of toleration to the Atlantic and particularly Iberian religious milieu itself. The argument is that Catholics, Jews, and Muslims had for some time learned to peacefully coexist, and that the Spanish Reconquista and the Catholic Inquisition, with the forced conversion of Jews and Muslims to Catholicism, was an aberration, albeit a long one. Others have argued that the Inquisition encouraged skepticism and disbelief, by forcing Conversos and Moriscos and even Old Christians to lie about their true religious beliefs, making religion a more interior and less public matter. Still others have argued that toleration came about through the philosophies of Enlightenment elites and through the pragmatic attempts of monarchs to rule over diverse populations. Though not rejecting these arguments out of hand, Schwartz regards them as insufficient, for they do not adequately connect skepticism to relativism or toleration, nor do they fit all the facts.

Schwartz offers a refined interpretation based on his reading of Inquisition documents from Spain, Portugal, and the New World. In those documents he has found a great many common people who expressed ideas contrary to Catholic dogma. Two categories of dissenting ideas are particular important to the analysis: ideas about religious relativism, and ideas about sex. Many people, including Old Christians and foreigners and not just New Christians, expressed a belief that people could be saved outside of the Catholic Church, expressly contradicting the dogma of Cyprian and Augustine that extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the Church there is no salvation). This idea was commonly couched in Schwartz’s epigraph quoted above and also in the phrase “better a good Moor than a bad Christian” (191) and in the concept of three equally valid laws, “that of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that of Mohammed, and that of Señor Moses” (51). People who held such ideas were frequently denounced, yet they continued to articulate them before Inquisitorial questioning and even torture. Those ideas were frequently coupled with ideas about sex. Contrary to church teaching, many in Iberia refused to regard sex outside of marriage as a sin, so long as it was not adulterous. In the New World, that concept was extended to a popular sanction of sex with Indians or Africans, so long as they were not baptized. Schwartz examines the two sets of ideas in tandem because ideas about sex, unlike ideas about religion, have measurable demographic effects.

Whence came these unorthodox ideas? Schwartz argues that ideas of tolerance came from common people themselves. They crafted them from their own experience with other faiths and from their own sense of justice, as can be seen in arguments that Jews and Muslims had done them no personal harm and that the Inquisition was wrong to seize their property. They also formed these ideas from their own understanding of Christianity, by giving more weight to God’s benevolence and the duty to love one’s neighbor than to claims of universality. Despite the post-Tridentine insistence that they must not, people interpreted Catholic teaching and the Bible for themselves, and Iberian Christians frequently criticized a newly invasive, papal form of the church. Schwartz’s point is that toleration—or official state permission for different faiths—sprang not simply from philosophy or statecraft, but from the ideas of common people who were literate, who traveled, who interacted with other faiths, and who above all judged right and wrong for themselves. To quote his conclusion, toleration came “also from common people, who, drawing on their own experiences, their own understanding of the tenets of their faith, and their own sense of justice, created a soil of tolerance” (255).

This book is persuasive in its argument, not least because it is sophisticated in its ideas of theology, vernacular ideas, interiority, and layered religious identity. Still, I wish to offer two critiques, or rather extensions, of Schwartz’s argument, one concerning theology and another concerning lived religion.

First, theology. The argument of this book takes place in the context of an Atlantic world in which the three monotheistic, Abrahamic faiths all shared a central concern with salvation. This Schwartz takes for granted. What happens if that assumption is questioned? For those three faiths account for just part of the religious world that Schwartz is describing, but Native American and African religions, European folk magic, and Enlightenment skepticism do not share the search for salvation. Tolerance based on relativism and the shared significance of soteriology is one thing, while toleration based on skepticism or the idea that religion is not about salvation is quite another. Schwartz’s analysis would have been more cogent had he distinguished more carefully between these two distinct theological ideas.

Second, lived religion. Schwartz spends much of the book exploring the conditions that made tolerance possible in the context of an expanding Catholic church. But Schwartz seems to have missed a crucial element: as paradoxical as it might seem, Catholicism itself was a necessary precondition for tolerance. I do not mean Christian ideas of loving one’s neighbor or the universal love of God, which Schwartz is careful to exposit. Rather, I mean that Catholic practice as experienced by laypeople seems to have encouraged toleration. There are two hints to this in Schwartz’s book. The first is the concept of the “three laws.” Schwartz explores tolerance in the concept of the plurality of religions, but not in their shared practice of law. While the concept of law is not the same in Judaism, Islam, and Catholic Christianity, each religion regards law as essential to the pursuit of salvation. The second hint is the language laypeople used to express their idea about how one receives salvation. To quote Oliveira e Sousa, “Our Lord God was very merciful that he had to save those who lived good lives . . .”; and to quote Inocencio de Aldama, “Any person can save themselves in the law that they may profess so long as they keep it, be they Moor, infidel, or heretic” (89–90, emphasis mine). The emphasis is on earning salvation through obedience to law, which in each religion is a set of practices. It is very difficult to see a similar idea of tolerance developing among, say, Genevan Reformed Protestants, for whom grace as opposed to law and God’s election as opposed to free will were the determinants of people’s salvation. But this is not so much a question of theology as lived religion. The “rustic Pelagians” of Iberia and the New World were intent on earning their salvation through Catholic reforms instituted at Trent, most notably annual participation in the Eucharist, annual auricular confession, and the use of devotional techniques such as the rosary or Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. Might Catholics have noticed similarities between their own practices and the rituals of Jews and Muslims, and concluded not only that they were all seeking salvation, but that they were all seeking salvation in the same way?

Schwartz is to be applauded for his exposition of vernacular ideas, and his work might be strengthened by future investigations into the relationship between vernacular ideas, theology, religious practice, and lived religion.


It is always encouraging to see well done reviews done with care, clarity, and an appreciation and understanding of the topic. Your points are well-taken and I appreciate the thought you have put into the critique. My response is that I feel on the first critique you are a bit too hard, after all there is considerable discussion of Africans and syncretism in the chapter on Brazil and some mention of them elsewhere. Also, converso ideas of “salvation” seem to have their origin more in Christian theology rather in that of Judaism.

On the second, there may be something there in that the emphasis on good works presents a catholic position to some extent, but the problem is, as I implied in the last chapter,that such ideas of tolerance could also be found elsewhere in Europe in Protestant communities–a position, by the way that B. Kaplan’s Divided by Faith also argues.

In any case, thanks for the thoughtful review.

Stuart Schwartz — 1 December 2010

A few days ago, Paul introduced us to secularization theory, and in particular to Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age. (Taylor’s other book, Sources of the Self, was the subject of an earlier post.) Taylor’s book is notable for going against the grain: at a time when most scholars are again recognizing the importance of religion, Taylor has undertaken to explain the old question of why societies become more secular. Why?

The phenomenon in need of explaining is this: religion can expand and secularization can occur at the same time in the same society. As Leigh Eric Schmidt observes in a review of Taylor’s book, “We must pair our narratives of modern secularization with narratives of modern sanctification.” Religion and secularization are “America’s uncanny twins.” (Do read at least the last paragraph of Schmidt’s review.)

Whatever the faults of Taylor’s history of secularization, Taylor offers a definition of secularization that is powerful enough to account for simultaneous religion and secularization. Taylor first offers two unsatisfactory definitions of secularization:

What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age? Almost everyone would agree that in some sense we do. . . .

But it’s not so clear in what this secularity consists. There are two big candidates for its characterization. . . . The first concentrates on the common institutions and practices—most obviously, but not only, the state. The difference would then consist in this, that whereas the political organizations of all pre-modern societies was in some way connected to, based on, guaranteed by some faith in, or adherence to God, or some notion of ultimate reality, the modern Western state is free from this connection. Churches are now separate from political structures. . . .

[Taylor observes that some societies, notably the U.S., have a strong separation of church and state, yet are vigorously religious.]

In this second meaning, secularity consists in the falling off of religious belief and practice, in people turning away from God, and no longer going to Church. In this sense, the countries of western Europe have mainly become secular–even those who retain the vestigial public reference to God in public space. (1–2)

These definitions are useful as far as they go. Both are advantageous in that they can be turned into empirical questions. Both describe actual conditions, and can account for differences between, say, Europe and the United States. But Taylor offers a better, because more useful, definition of secularization:

Now I believe that an examination of this age as secular is worth taking up in a third sense, closely related to the second, and not without connection to the first. This would focus on the conditions of belief. The shift to secularity in this sense consists, among other things, of a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace. In this meaning, as against sense 2, at least many milieux in the United States are secularized, and I would argue that the United States as a whole is. Clear contrast cases today would be the majority of Muslim societies, or the milieux in which the vast majority of Indians live. It wouldn’t matter if one showed that the statistics for church/synagogue attendance in the U.S., or some regions of it, approached those for Friday mosque attendance in, say, Pakistan or Jordan (or this, plus daily prayer). That would be evidence towards classing these societies as the same in sense 2. Nevertheless it seems to me evident that there are big differences between these societies in what it is to believe, stemming in part from the fact that belief is an option, and in some sense an embattled option in the Christian (or “post-Christian”) society, and not (or not yet) in the Muslim ones. (2–3)

This is an elegant definition, even if the prose is not. The change that matters is that Christianity is no longer the only possible option in Western society. One might be a Christian, one might become a Buddhist, one might become an atheist, or might remain uncommitted. But everyone must choose, and that choice will be contested. As William James put it in“The Will to Believe,” the choice is genuine because it is “forced, living, and momentous.”

Taylor’s definition is elegant in that it can account historically for how secularization changes even fervent religious belief. There is, for example, an extraordinarily long continuity in Christian belief as expressed in creeds such as the Nicene Creed. If one grants that the words of the creed and the content of the belief are the same across time, yet one must observe that the meaning of that belief is different in fourth-century Constantinople, twelfth-century Rome, and twenty-first-century America, because the other options in which the believer might believe have changed.

To sum up: Taylor’s definition of secularization as having to do with “the conditions of belief” is useful because it can be historicized. This definition, which you can see in the above excerpts from Taylor’s first three pages, can be used apart from any particular historical narrative of secularization. But if you want to see how Taylor puts his definition to work, you’ll have to read the other 800 pages for yourself.