Love, honour and obey

Prospect Magazine

Prospect Blog

Love, honour and obey


Conflicting views: is marriage a medium for self-expression? Or an institution with rules that cannot be altered?

I have recently had occasion to work through some of the research on Christianity’s recent decline in the UK. There is something of a consensus in the literature that at least part of the explanation for its deterioration is not, in fact, the rejection of the possibility of a spiritual dimension to reality—in fact, by some measures, people are becoming increasingly credulous. Instead, at least part of the answer lies in what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “massive subjective turn of modern culture.”

People no longer want a life lived in respect of external roles, duties or obligations, but turn to the unique experiences of selves-in-relation. Consumer capitalism, which trains us to expect the world to be fine-tuned to our expectations, has intensified a change already under way in modernity. To use words

You need to be logged in to see this part of the content. Please either subscribe or Login to access.
  1. March 12, 2012


    I would put the stress somewhat differently. It is not about subjectivity and becoming philautos, but about a preference for institutions built (and rebuilt as desired) by us ourselves from the bottom up, as opposed to institutions non-negotiably imposed on us from the top down by some wise men or providence.

    The cause of this is rooted not in capitalist principles, but in democratic ones – our ever-expanding knowledge about the world and each other has demonstrated to us that any given human is about as able and as flawed as any other human. With this fact out in the open, authority can no longer be sustained for any significant period of time within a narrow circle – individuals now need to prove that they are worth listening to every time they want someone to listen to them. Power still can be sustained, but power is a forced kind of authority – it is authority without respect. It is for this reason, and not greater self-centredness that people are increasingly opposing all of the big, old institutions – political parties, organised religions, megacorporations, old media, etc.

    The only truly ‘dirty’ value today is obedience.

  2. March 12, 2012

    Paul Bickley


    I don’t disagree but think you’re describing the same changes in a different idiom. If I may, I do think Taylor’s idiom is better than yours – mainly because if the movement could be described as an expression of democratic ideal, then we might hope for democracy to be doing better than it is.

    The ‘ground up’ reality, as Taylor argues, is one where people are “enclosed within their own hearts”. “People are content to stay at home and enjoy the pleasures of private life, as long as the government of the day produces the means of these satisfactions and distributes them widely”.

    In other words, how can it be that a democratic instinct could create such alienation from the public sphere?

  3. March 13, 2012


    @Paul Bickley,

    The conceptual difference, I think, is between a decreasing attachment to community ideals and outcomes, and a decreasing attachment to the methods by which these ideals and outcomes are pursued.

    The difference is important – if the former is true then we must be trying to foster greater community spirit (or preparing to live in a more atomised society), but if the latter is true, we must be looking for ways to redesign (or wholesale replace) our institutions without changing their goals. Are we going to the wrong place or are we using the wrong vehicle to get there?

    To evaluate whether the former or the latter is true, we should not be looking at levels of engagement in existing institutions as these would be falling in BOTH cases – as a result, decreasing participation in parties and elections provides little evidence either way. Instead, we should be looking if there is an uptick in experiments (probably not very successful, as all early experiments are) with alternative forms of social cooperation and community forming, or whether previous social activities are now being replaced with more individualist ones.

    To my mind, it is pretty clearly the former, not the latter. People are not abandoning community activities. Instead they are abandoning communities organised around the authoritarian principle of an unwashed mass of plebs instructed by an enlightened council of elders. It is not a rejection of giving to others, but a rejection of orders to give to me so that I can (I swear!) give to others on your behalf. It is not an embrace of personal subjectivity, but a rejection of having to embrace the subjective preferences of some self-appointed ‘authority’. It is not a distaste for ideals, but for leaders who want to wrap themselves in their mantle.

  4. March 14, 2012

    Paul Bickley

    I just don’t think that’s a comprehensive explanation, or rather that you might be describing the symptom rather than the disease (unfortunately pejorative term).

    In particular – there’s some pathos around authority in your own post. I don’t say that’s unjustified, but what causes people to place their own bad experience of public and religious institutions into a narrative which critiques institutions per se as authoritarian, manipulative and so on?

    Of course, the subjective term did not come ex nihilo – higher levels of education matters, but I would think less than technological and economic change, historically unprecedented levels of mobility and so on. These itensify ideas that are already present in culture, at least since the time of Rousseau. This seems far more plausible than the idea that we have gradually woke up and realised that people are often untrustworthy, therefore we must create ‘horizontalist’ institutions.

Leave a comment


Paul Bickley

Paul Bickley is senior researcher at the think tank Theos 

Most Read