Did the Oregon Shooter Actually Target Christians? It Doesn’t Appear So

[Excerpts from my article published at the Friendly Atheist. ]

It’s a rallying moment for American Christians angered by the growing voices of the nation’s non-religious, however small a minority we remain.

Christian communities online are feverishly crying, “Now do you believe we’re persecuted?” Political, cultural, and religious leaders are calling on Christians to rise up against their non-religious persecutors, accusing us of fostering violence, and demanding we take responsibility.

That fever is rising with each news report about the massacre of nine people at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.

(Images via YouTube)

All of those stories seem to report a variation on the line “Christians were targeted.” A Washington Post headline read “Oregon shooter said to have singled out Christians for killing in ‘horrific act of cowardice.’” NBC reported: “The gunman who opened fire at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College targeted Christians specifically, according to the father of a wounded student.”

Though some outlets like the New York Times noted that that “Law enforcement officials would not confirm or deny” that Christians were targeted, that “fact” has already become conventional wisdom.

Support for that idea, however, is limited, as Lauren showed in an earlier post on this site. Most people making that claim point to the shooter’s membership in a Facebook group called “Against Organized Religion,” his self-characterization as “spiritual but not religious,” and two secondhand accounts from relatives of survivors.

Hemant posted another survivor’s report that contradicts those earlier accounts, providing a more detailed and very different interpretation of the shooter’s questions:

McGowan told family members that the gunman didn’t specifically target Christians but asked them about faith. The shooter, apparently planning to die during the massacre, told students: “I’ll see you soon” or “I’ll meet you soon.”

“The shooter would call a person: ‘You, stand up,’” Salas said, recalling what her son told her. “And then he would ask them if they were a Christian, knew God, or had religion. And it wasn’t like it was stated on TV. It wasn’t about that he was just trying to pinpoint Christians, no.”

The shooter would tell them it wouldn’t hurt.

“And then he would shoot them,” she said.

Of course, there is a way we could check if this claim that the shooter was targeting Christians has any merit: Let’s examine the victims’ beliefs as best we can and find out if they fit that description.

It’s not just for the sake of curiosity. One could argue that painting them all as Christian martyrs would be disrespectful if they weren’t actually Christian. For most of them, we don’t know their religious beliefs for certain. All we can look at is their social media presence and comments from loved ones.

Similarly, should we assume that those who were spared or only injured were either non-Christian or insufficiently courageous to admit their Christianity?

People are making a lot of assumptions without looking at the evidence.

So let’s try to do that.

First, let me say this is the hardest post I’ve ever written. Studying the words and photos of these lovely people made the magnitude of our loss simply unfathomable.

The bottom line? Only two of the nine victims are confirmed to be Christians. While some of the other seven may be Christians, there’s currently no publicly available evidence for it. And several others seem to hold beliefs other than Christianity.

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