Did the Oregon Shooter Actually Target Christians? That Doesn’t Appear to Be the Case

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.

We’ve all heard that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” — just because they didn’t talk about their faith or lack thereof doesn’t mean we should be quick to label them one way or the other — but that hasn’t stopped the public from painting all nine victims as Christian martyrs. Let’s see if that’s actually the case by going beyond the sweeping characterization and looking at the human beings themselves.

Lucero Alcaraz, 19

Lucero was in honors classes on a full scholarship in her first year and hoped to be a pediatrician or pediatric nurse. Her sister has spoken of her pride in Lucero, whom she called her “best friend” who was “going to do great things.” No social media account for her has been reported. No references to her religious beliefs have emerged.

Rebecka Carnes, 18

Rebecka was described as “vibrant,” and that’s the impression you get from her Facebook page, which includes lots and lots of interests. (It’s heartbreaking to look through them). She enjoyed sports and outdoor activities. Many movies, mostly youth-oriented and cartoons (but also The Hangover).  A great many country, pop, and hip-hop musicians. Lots of fashion, food, and candy. It’s such a huge hodgepodge that it would surely be misleading to suggest any one or two were particularly meaningful to her.

I learned yesterday that there are “public figures” on Facebook known only for their brief, occasional posts, who still receive millions of likes. Rebecka “liked” two of them on her page, both very young men: One is a German who calls himself an “NLP coach” (that’s “neurolinguistic programming,” a pseudoscience of psychological manipulation) and posts lighthearted secular inspiration. The other is an Australian who posts cute, youth-oriented inspirational memes with sayings like “Don’t take the people in your life for granted.” Although his bio says he’s Christian, most of his content is secular; among the first several dozen that came up, I saw only one religiously themed one.

And buried amidst Rebecka’s likes for TV shows and entertainers are Duck Dynasty and its patriarch, Phil Robertson. Do these signal her Christianity? She doesn’t say, and there’s no indication these interests are significant to her. Her family didn’t mention her religion.

Jason Johnson, 33

Jason’s family described him as a “proud Christian” with “a good heart.” He was doing well after having gone through a Salvation Army drug rehab program. He’d recently gotten his GED, just started college, and “was turning his life around… He was ready for a change and then this happened.” His mother said he was trusting, loyal, and “so proud of what he had accomplished, and rightly so.”

I have not found anything from Jason himself to confirm his family’s description of him as a Christian; no social media accounts have been reported for him. But the Salvation Army is a Christian ministry, where he spent six months in rehab, so it’s reasonable to accept their word for it.

Quinn Cooper, 18

(Image via Twitter)

Quinn, who had just graduated from high school, is described by his family as “funny, sweet, compassionate, and such a wonderful, loving person.” He was into martial arts, dancing, and writing comedy sketches. Although he didn’t post much on his Facebook timeline, his page included a lot of likes giving us a good sense of his interests: Video games, heavy metal music, comedy, fantasy and sci-fi like Star Wars and Doctor Who

His two book likes were The Hobbit and Heroes of Olympus. Among the entertainers and comedians he liked was gay icon George Takei. He must have really liked Sheldon Cooper, the fictional atheist scientist in the TV show The Big Bang Theory, as he liked three different pages for him. Lastly, he liked science programming and pages like Mythbusters, ScienceAlert, and IFuckingLoveScience. There’s no suggestion of any religious interest.

(Edit: A New York Times article points out that Cooper was not religious and would probably have called himself an Agnostic.)

Treven Anspach, 20

Treven‘s family says he was “easy going and humble,… always looking for the best in life.” He played for the college’s basketball team; his coach said, “All he wanted to do in life was to marry his high school sweetheart, be a firefighter like his dad, and to serve others.” A team member called him a “quiet leader” who was his mentor. He first posted on his Facebook timeline only a week before the shootings — some poignantly loving teasing among his family members. But he had dozens of interests liked; these were dominated by sports, video games, hip-hop, and “adult jokes.”

There were no references to his religious beliefs.

Lucas Eibel, 18

Lucas had just graduated from high school and was studying chemistry on a scholarship. He loved animals, volunteering at a wild animal park and a shelter, where a coworker said he was “super kind-hearted.” His family called him “amazing.” He was a member of FFA, a youth organization for students interested in agriculture, science, and natural resources.

He was not very active on Facebook and did not post his interests or activities there, other than the photo above from a group hiking trip. His header image was from the gothic metal rock band Evanescence. That band, at times, uses Christian themes but are adamant about not being called a Christian band.

I’ve found no mention by his family or friends of his religious beliefs.

Lawrence Levine, 67

Larry was the assistant English professor teaching the introductory writing class where the shootings began. A friend said he was “the sweetest, most gentle, kind, thoughtful and creative person.” He was not very active on Facebook, with no timeline posts, but he displayed a liking for his sports teams as well as a large collection of classic rock, blues, jazz and R&B. He lived by a river where he was a fly fisherman and guide. He loved wildlife, “sought refuge in nature,” and published nature essays. His LinkedIn profile included New Age guru Deepak Chopra as an influence, and a 2013 essay expressed tremendous wonder at nature’s beauty, without religious references:

I can’t recall a time that we both, in a rush of deep appreciation, didn’t proclaim the North Fork to be the most beautiful river in the world… When I stand in a spot where I have stood a hundred times and am still awe inspired, that’s way cool, because I’ve got this personal theory about how awe has the power to transform, however temporarily and however permanently. I see the scene, simultaneously remembering its many manifestations over time, remembering the man viewing it twenty/thirty years ago, and, for too fleeting a moment, the old awe adds intensity to the present… Over a period of time, an eon ago, the river whispered to me… Much akin to the lyrics of The Band’s song, “The River Hymn,” it called, “Son, you ain’t never seen yourself / No crystal mirror can show it clear, come over here instead.”  It made me an offer to which I put up no resistance, and I’ve been here ever since.  I like that when it addresses me — and address me it does — it always does so as “Son.”

Today, I stood where the wide ledge below my house meets the deep part of the river… As I gazed into the depths, I saw my shadow and rays of light emanating around my silhouette. The light danced to the rhythm of the breeze on the water; it was all in one and magical, and that was what I dove into.

I have a very strong feeling that Larry would not be pleased to be remembered as a Christian martyr. (Edit: In his childhood, Levine learned a Sabbath song in Yiddish. Given everything else we know about him, he appears to have been raised in Judaism and held a secular philosophy later in life.)

Kim Saltmarsh Dietz, 59

Kim was a lover of nature, who friends say was “very positive… She was just high on life… She was always trying to help people and… animals.”  She wrote in August: “I’ve started going to our local community college, working towards my Bachelor of Science Degree.” She had worked in tending vineyards and animal care.  She was occasionally on Facebook, showing an interest in wildlife conservation, holistic health, dogs, artisan wines and beers, and the Society for Creative Anachronisms. One of her last posts was a hilarious video of a door-knocker who startles people by coming to life and angrily yelling at them. The title of the video included the phrase “I Need This for Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

There are many inspirational memes and videos on her page, alongside progressive politics and liberal values. There isn’t a single religious reference. Like Larry, I do not believe Kim would want to be remembered as a Christian martyr. (Edit: Dietz was indeed Pagan.)

Sarena Moore, 44

Sarena was studying business at the college and loved dogs. She was Christian — a Seventh Day Adventist. The Adventist Review published a profile of her, leading with

A Seventh-day Adventist mother was among those killed in a shooting rampage that targeted Christians at a community college in the U.S. state of Oregon, her pastor said Friday.

The pastor said Sarena was “a strong firm believer in prayer” who

lived her faith on her Facebook page, writing messages such as “Love how God can bless us”… 

If Moore was targeted by the gunman for being a Christian, he said, then “she demonstrated her faith in a way that very few would feel prepared to do.” 

“It was an act of courage and faith that our God carefully noted, and her faith will become sight at the resurrection morning.

The article quotes Adventist world church president Ted N.C. Wilson from his Facebook page:

Please join me in praying for the families and friends of these precious young people who died for their faith

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GOP Presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson is calling on Americans to change their Facebook profile photos to one where they’re holding this sign, to “honor the victims and their families.”

With more of the victims interested in science than religion, wouldn’t holding up a sign saying “Science rocks!” be a more meaningful tribute to them? It’s almost as if the need for them to be Christians to support the narrative is more important than honoring who these wonderful people really were.

(All images via Facebook, unless otherwise noted)

About Bo Gardiner

Bo Gardiner’s career has taken her from TV writer-producer to government environmental scientist and conservationist in water, air and wildlife issues. She holds a B.A. in communications and M.S. in environmental engineering sciences. A naturalist in both senses of the word (both nature study and seeking the natural over the supernatural), Bo now works as a consultant in a quiet part of Virginia, where she geeks out on botanizing and birds; writes on science, nature, skepticism, and religion at her blog Under the Greenwood Tree; and creates skeptical humanist YouTube videos. Email her at: bogardiner1 AT gmail DOT com.


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