I’ve spent a lot of time reading creationist literature, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there are actually 4 distinct groups of creationist, each of which has very distinct motives for their beliefs. I think that interactions with creationists are doomed to go badly if we don’t understand which type we are talking to. So here are my categories.
Young Earth – Leadership
“I believe in God, and God told me we did not evolve”
(Answers in Genesis/Creation Ministries International/Institute for Creation Research, etc)
Imagine that you KNOW everything written in the Bible is literally true. Imagine you had observed everything that happens in the Bible yourself. You accept it the way you accept everyday, repeatable observations, like the sky appears blue and dropped objects fall toward the Earth. In fact more so, because your senses can be fooled by evolution, but God never lies. These are NOT hypotheses to be tested, these are incontrovertible data points to be accounted for.
Now, take those additional data points, plus everything else you observe in everyday life, and try to come up with coherent explanations for the Universe.
They are not inherently opposed to science. Many of those at the leadership level are actually very interested in science, and a surprising amount of effort and diligence does go into their studies. They passionately believe that the universe can be understood by man, in fact was designed to be understood by man. But the data that they are most certain of, because it came from an entirely infallible source, contradicts most of modern science.
So they are forced to come up with their own theories. This process has more in common with Trekkies debating the laws of the Star Trek Universe than it does with actual science. Except that they don’t go home after the convention and continue their lives in the real world, because they actually believe that they live in their alternate universe. And because their stories were fantasy written by nomads 2000 years ago instead of sci-fi written 50 years ago, theories that allow those stories to be literally true and still work with the universe today tend to be even more convoluted and weird than those proposed by the Trekkies.
Old Earth – Leadership
“Evolution could not have created us, therefore God must have.”
(Intelligent Design Theorists/Reasons to Believe/Discovery Institute/etc)
This group sincerely believes that there are problems with evolution that make it untenable. Because life could not have evolved on its own, there must be a god. Details on the limits of evolution and degree of God’s required involvement vary.
One interesting thing about the Old Earth leadership group is that there is really no theological support for this belief. If you are willing to accept that Genesis is figurative, there is nothing in the Bible or Christian theology that makes God creating the species at different times throughout history easier to swallow than God setting up the universe so that we would evolve. Their rejection of evolution provides the support for their faith.
Note that the driving factor here is the exact opposite of the Young Earth Leadership. For Young earthers it’s “God, therefore Creation”, for old earthers it’s “Creation, therefore God”. Both leadership groups have spent a lot of time thinking about their beliefs, and generally have a belief system that is internally self-consistent, at least for the common questions. So it’s almost always one or the other. With the general public you’ll often hear both, which is obviously circular reasoning.
This group will probably gradually die out on its own. The evidence for evolution is getting to the point where no one sincerely looking at the evidence will doubt that evolution is possible. At this point they will probably find other reasons to believe in God, and join one of the many Christian denominations that accept evolution. Or if this was truly their last reason to believe in God they will become atheists. More likely, the people who have devoted their careers to this belief will cling to it until they die out, but fewer and fewer younger people will be drawn into this group.
It is a straightforward God-of-the-gaps argument, and as the gap closes people will naturally gravitate away from it.
One complication with this group is that they are often heavily funded by the Young Earth groups. This is because the Young Earth groups realise that they don’t stand a chance at getting young earth creationism into the schools. And “intelligent design” is a nice compromise to sneak in. The young earthers actually believe that these people are fundamentally wrong about issues far more serious than the age of the earth. They believe that the doctrine of sin before the fall and other issues are crucial, BUT if you believe in Jesus you are saved and will go to heaven. Therefore they are willing to work with old earth groups anyway.
This generally does not work the other way around. The old earth leadership group is committed to scientific evidence and does not respect the young earthers, and hate them for reducing their credibility by bringing the Bible up in “scientific” papers and making ridiculous unscientific claims. However funding for old earth creationist research is scarce, so they often accept funds from young earthers anyway.
This group is also virtually absent in Alberta (though much more popular in BC), and thus hasn’t had as much of my attention.
Old Earth – Public
“I’m not one of THEM”
(The majority of the congregation at a church that supports the old earth organizations above)
This group is the compromisers. They haven’t looked into the issue themselves, they just don’t want to be “one of those crazy people”. This means that they don’t want to be one of those crazy Bible thumping biblical literalists, but they also don’t want to be one of those sinful atheists, and they consider old earth creationism to be a reasonable compromise. It’s all about identity, they don’t care about the evidence. They may feed you a couple of memorized tag lines about evolution being a lie or share some creationist links on Facebook, but it is always more like a school cheer than an argument, just to identify which team they are on. If you actually want to discuss what they shared, they will either get really defensive and hurt that you would disagree with them, or try to shift everything around so that they are really agreeing with everyone.
What really resonates with them is arguments like “Stalin and Hitler were driven to commit genocide because of their belief in evolution”. They do not want to believe in evolution because they want to be good people, and good Christian people don’t believe in evolution.
As the old earth leadership dies out, these people will probably also drift toward accepting evolution.
It is pointless to try and convince this group of the facts of evolution, because they are not interested in the facts. If you are going to try to convince them you need to help them understand that good people, and even most Christians, accept evolution and it does not turn them into murderous sinners.
Young Earth – Public
“Why would I trust some scientist over my pastor?”
(The majority of the congregation at an old earth church.)
These people have never taken the time to look into the issue either. But unlike the old earth public, they are dogmatic and unflinching. They tend to have a strong distrust for the government and intellectuals, and tend to believe that scientists are actively suppressing the truth to promote atheism. Conspiracy theories abound.
Christians are at war with Satan/atheists. Believing in evolution is the first step in inviting Satan in.
They believe in whatever the Bible says. Though quite often that’s whatever their parents/pastor told them the Bible says, because they haven’t read it themselves. But if it says something that contradicts science, they trust the Bible.
They tend to believe in Satan, and that he is actively manipulating those that accept evolution, and constantly trying to trick them. Therefore if some part of their religion doesn’t seem to make sense, it’s probably a trick. The correct response is to pray, not to question God.
Sometimes the lines between the two public groups are blurred, and do not strictly follow the young earth/old earth distinction. Although people with the “young earth personality” tend to be drawn to young earth churches, and vice versa, often which church you go to is also influenced by where your family goes. Of course the church you go to also influences your beliefs, and all anti-evolution churches seem to be very in-group/out-group oriented.