A firefighter examines the remains of Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal church, late Tuesday, June 30, 2015, in Greeleyville, S.C. The African-American church, which was burned down by the Ku Klux Klan in 1995, caught fire Tuesday night. (Veasey Conway/The Morning News via AP)

You might have seen on social media or heard in the news about a series of arsons targeting black Southern churches since apparent white supremacist Dylann Roof allegedly murdered nine people at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, S.C. "After Charleston," the liberal blog Think Progress wrote, "Black Churches Targeted By Arsonists Across The South." The apparent trend was first noticed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has been tracking later incidents. Overnight, there was another fire just outside of Charleston.

But that fire wasn't arson, and there have been a number of fires at non-black churches since June 20, too -- including arsons. It seems that the reported trend is more a function of our habit of seeking out patterns than any abnormal targeting of black churches.

"Abnormal" is an important word there. A 2000 investigation into church arsons found 945 examples between January 1995 and that August -- an average of 14 a month. In the South, those fires were disproportionately at churches with black congregations. Other data suggests that arsons at churches could occur as often as five times a week.

A search of news reports since June 20 indicates that concern about a trend of Southern arsons depends on focusing on certain incidents and on defaulting to the assumption that a fire is necessarily arson. Below are 14 incidents we identified, including those that have attracted the most attention. There have been two confirmed arsons at black churches.

Arsons at black churches

College Hills Seventh Day Adventist Church, Knoxville, Tenn.
On June 21. Predominantly black congregation.
Likely cause: Arson. No evidence of hate crime.

Briar Creek Baptist Church, Charlotte, N.C.
On June 24. Predominantly black congregation.
Likely cause: Arson. No evidence of hate crime.

Possible arsons at black churches

God's Power Church of Christ, Macon, Ga.
On June 23. Predominantly black congregation.
Likely cause: Initial reports indicated arson, but that's not confirmed.

Glover Grove Baptist Church, Warrenville, S.C.
On June 26. Predominantly black congregation.
Likely cause: Undetermined.

Other fires

New Hope Lutheran Church, West Melbourne, Fla.
On June 20.
Likely cause: Arson.

Fruitland Presbyterian Church, Gibson County, Tenn.
On June 23.
Likely cause: Lightning.

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Queens, New York, N.Y.
On June 23.
Likely cause: Lightning.

Killeen First Assembly of God, Killeen, Texas
On June 23.
Likely cause: Accidental.

Greater Miracle Apostolic Holiness Church, Tallahassee, Fla.
On June 24. Predominantly black congregation.
Likely cause: Electrical.

College Heights Baptist Church, Elyria, Ohio
On June 27.
Likely cause: Unknown.

Forerunners for Christ Church, Echo Park, Calif.
On June 29.
Likely cause: Arson.

Disciples of Christ Ministries, Jackson, Miss.
On June 29. Predominantly black congregation.
Likely cause: Electrical.

Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, New York, N.Y.
On June 29.
Likely cause: Arson.

Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, Greeleyville, S.C.
On June 30. Predominantly black congregation.
Likely cause: Lightning.


This list is probably not comprehensive. Smaller fires or incidents might not have warranted a news story, for example. And of course any arson is a crime that deserves prosecution.

In the wake of Sept. 11, there was a conspiracy theory that spread about the deaths of microbiologists. The trend was largely a function of probability, and not one of conspiracy. We can't help but see such trends, though, especially in moments of acute emotional stress.

The good news, in this case, seems to be that once again we may have tricked ourselves into seeing something that isn't there.