The Null Device

Set theory: the next front in the culture war

The next front in the culture war for America's resurgent Christian fundamentalist movement may be set theory. That's right; some fundies find the mathematical theory of sets right down there with critical thinking, mainstream paleontology and Ozzy Osbourne records:
"Unlike the "modern math" theorists, who believe that mathematics is a creation of man and thus arbitrary and relative, A Beka Book teaches that the laws of mathematics are a creation of God and thus absolute....A Beka Book provides attractive, legible, and workable traditional mathematics texts that are not burdened with modern theories such as set theory."
Why do the fundamentalists find set theory so objectionable? It seems to be not because of what it says (unlike, say, evolutionary biology) but because of the kinds of thought it may encourage; set theory, you see, with its paradoxes and its heretical notion of there being different kinds of infinity (i.e., the set of all real numbers and the set of all integers are both infinite, but the former is greater than the latter) could subtly seduce even the most rigorously home-schooled children into modernist habits of thinking, not based in absolute truths and rigid, God-given hierarchies but in ungodly paradoxes. And if there is more than one infinity and the the set of all statements is either incomplete or inconsistent, they may start to wonder what other statements they had accepted on divinely-ordained authority are incorrect, and before you know it, you have atheism, Red Communism and buggery on the Sabbath.
They see modernism as the opposing worldview to their own. They are all about tradition (or, at least, what they have decided is traditional). Modernism is a knee-jerk rejection of tradition in favor of the new. Obviously, they think a very specific sort of Christian God should be the center of everything and all parts of society, public and private. Modernists prefer ideas like secular humanism and think God is something you should be doing in private, on your own time. They believe strongly in the importance of power hierarchies and rules. Modernism smashes all of that and says, "Hey, just do your own thing. Nobody's ideas are any better or worse than anybody else's. There's no right and wrong. Go crazy, man!"
More importantly, they know that [modernists] are subtle, and use sneaky means to indoctrinate children and lure adults into accepting modernist values. So the art, the literature, the jazz—probably the Scandinavian furniture, too, though I never heard anyone mention that specifically—are all just traps. They're ways of getting us to reject to One True Path a little bit at a time. (I should note that, up to this point, I am basing my analysis on what I was taught in Baptist school. After this, I'm speculating, and attempting to connect the ideas I know are present in this subculture with set theory.)
Set theory, particularly the stuff about infinity, has a bit of that wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey flavor to it. It doesn't make sense on the level of "common sense". It's dealing with things that aren't standard, simple numbers. It makes links between nice, factual math and floppy, subjective philosophy. If you're raised in Christian fundamentalist culture, all of that—every last bit—absolutely reeks of modernism. It's easy to see how somebody at A Beka would look at set theory and conclude that it's really just modernist propaganda. To them, set theory is just a step on the road to godless atheism.
And so, the red line in the culture war has now ambitiously been pushed back to the 19th century, with a view to rolling back the Enlightenment and bring back the certainties of the mediæval age, when humanity knew its place.

There are 2 comments on "Set theory: the next front in the culture war":

Posted by: Greg

Sat Aug 18 14:07:49 2012

Some of that "modernism" sounds more like "post-modernism".

Posted by: acb
http://dev.null.org/acb/
Sat Aug 18 14:42:35 2012

It sounds more like the Enlightenment and secularist rationalism to me, albeit extrapolated to its logical conclusion (Gödel's incompleteness theorem and such) it leads in the direction of postmodernism. The set theory deniers want to stop the rot before it gets to denying the mediaeval worldview of everything being the way it is by divine fiat.

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