Halloween Extra: An Atheist Horror Story

Halloween Extra: An Atheist Horror Story October 31, 2018

Here’s a repost of a short story of mine, an atheist horror story to get you in the mood for Halloween.


“Good morning, Dr. Jones.” Oliver Jones’ secretary smiled at him from behind her desk. “Welcome back.”

“Thank you,” he said. He had no memory of ever seeing the woman before. He paused to read the label on his unfamiliar office door: “Oliver Jones PhD, Chancellor.”

This was his first day back at work after his accident. He had been out for just a few days, but it felt more like nine years. His neurologist diagnosed the problem as retrograde amnesia. The nine years of memory loss could be permanent, his memory might return gradually, or it might return quite suddenly. “I’ve had patients who’ve said, ‘Oh, yeah …’ and then they can almost watch their world rebuild itself as the memories return.”

Nine years earlier, he had been a successful and ambitious college administrator and very much an atheist. Today, he was the head of Tabernacle University, perhaps America’s most aggressively Christian university.

Only his neurologist shared the secret. Jones’s public story was that he had some limited amnesia, he’d soon be fine, and that he needed to take things slowly. He hoped that his secretary’s prepping visitors with this vague prognosis would explain away any erratic behavior.

He looked around his big office. He saw many books on Christianity and atheism that he remembered reading. There were other familiar touches—artwork that he recognized and a few nerdy desk toys. But then there were the photos—photos of him shaking hands with televangelists, prominent religious leaders, and a presidential candidate. Who was this guy?

He looked himself up online, horrified as the details filled in the outline of what he had already learned about himself at the hospital. He had become Tabernacle’s chancellor four years earlier after some sort of religious epiphany. As a prominent and outspoken atheist, he had apparently been quite a catch for conservative Christianity.

On this first day back at work, he blundered through the day with impromptu staff meetings to update him on the latest issues. As with his first look at his secretary, each of his colleagues was a stranger.

In his house that evening—he was apparently still a single divorced man—he considered his situation. Should he come clean and quit? Find a new job?

He weighed his options as an interesting route took shape—remain as chancellor, but be a reformer. With this bully pulpit, he could steer this inept leviathan onto a healthier course. The board might fire him, of course, but as an atheist who woke up at the helm of a prominent Christian institution, this was too good an opportunity to pass up.

He thought of the students. The image came to mind of a jungle explorer who slips into quicksand. He struggles but sinks deeper. Exhausted, he calls for help, but no one comes. His students were like that, living and breathing reason but gradually slipping under. He could throw them a rope.

The university charter made clear that the Christian student had nothing to fear from an honest search for the truth. With this as his armor, Jones began his reforms. He sidelined projects that had been on his desk and created a lecture series with nationally known atheists. The students needed to see the real debate, not some neutered version. No longer could his professors set up flimsy atheist arguments but would need to respond to the best.

Reactions came quickly. Alumni protested, and parents demanded that the school be turned back into a safe haven for their children. The board warned that neither group could be alienated. Jones responded by pointing to the school’s confident charter. Wasn’t it still in force? He said he wanted nothing more than to honor the founders’ vision.

Perhaps the board figured that a man who’d had a recent brush with death was entitled to a little slack. With a bit of breathing room, he courted the press and soon became the darling of the mainstream religious media. He next dropped the faith requirement for professors and students and created a new professorship for Atheist Studies. He charged the science department with teaching only the scientific consensus—no more Creationism or 6000-year-old earth. He launched a project to earn an honorable accreditation for the university rather than one given only to Bible colleges. Students would discover the truth, not be force-fed a dogma. Each strategically timed innovation brought a new round of interviews that raised his profile progressively higher.

Tabernacle had been a stodgy refuge from reality but was evolving in the public mind into an innovator in Christian thought and higher education. Despite continuing resistance from all sides, his influential public profile helped convince the board to give him room to explore his new vision.

At the end of the semester, Jones took stock of his work. Four months earlier, he had felt like Alice, newly through the looking glass. Now he could point to solid progress in smoothing off the sharp edges, at least for this Christian institution. For all the enemies he had made, he seemed to have even more allies. Who could say what additional innovations he might make in the years to come?

It finally felt right to make this office his own, to replace photos of that other guy with recent magazine cover stories and pictures with new friends.

He studied the old photos as he took them down. He was surprised as they brought to mind dreams he’d had recently—dreams of an unfamiliar past that now came more into focus—and he went through the photos again. Oh yeah, he thought, as memories trickled back to become ill-fitting jigsaw puzzle pieces. The man in the top photo, that was the outgoing chancellor. He’d been informed of that, but now he knew through his own memory. And the photo with the famous preacher—he remembered when the photo was taken.

He even remembered the event that led to his being there, that low point when he got on his knees and embraced Jesus. He was getting his life back, though instead of walking into a welcoming and familiar new world, he felt that old life creeping up around him like a jungle vine, pulling him under, yanking him back to his Christian past.

He could call for help, but who would come?


(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 1/1/14.)

Image via Ashley Whitlatch, CC license


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  • ThaneOfDrones

    Needs more cowbell.

  • Phil Rimmer

    The story needs more construction around the forgetfulness needed to sustain Christian sensibilities. How inconvenient truths destroy the pacifying narrative that makes folk biddable by the games of the political and shaman classes.

    He lapsed too far into forgetfulness last time. And here he goes again after a period of brief shocking clarity. Politicians shaking his hand for his endorsement of that wall and he, blissful at the prospect of his newly ease-full acted out, forgetful life.

    • Phil Rimmer

      Formed this way, I see the story has the same arc as Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon which elicits great sadness at the loss of a temporary only genius. There is no hope for pity in this case. Even as the relaxed smile spreads across his face he can just about recall that he is becoming indistinguishable from contemptible. Ah but the love of his peers! What was that he was just thinking?

  • Michael Neville

    Completely OT: Cross Examined Recent Comments has become non-functional, at least for me.

  • Jim Jones

    Ummm. No idea where this is going.

    • The idea of an atheist becoming a Christian, seeing it happen in real time and not being able to do anything about it, seemed like an interesting idea to explore.

      • Jim Jones

        But the only way is for him to have a stroke or a brain injury?

        • Am I missing a more logical approach? I’m happy to hear suggestions. Or are you saying that recovering from amnesia isn’t the best way to have this atheist + Christian conflict in his head?

        • Jim Jones

          An interesting story would be one where he falls for religion without a brain injury. Although that would be hard to write.

  • Damian Byrne

    “”He next dropped the faith requirement for professors and students and created a new professorship for Atheist Studies.”
    This is where you lose me. What exactly do you study in Atheist Studies? I’m an atheist myself, and yet I’ve always held that being an atheist is a reaction to a claim, a negative reaction to the positive claim of “My God is there”. I the atheist say “I don’t believe that” and…that’s that. End of story.
    Does one get a Masters in non-stamp-collecting? What does one put on a resume when applying for a professorship of Atheism Studies? Just that one doesn’t believe a God claim? Has debated theists?

    • bbeck

      Bob has written yet another fictional story, just like their book, so all athiest will start believing. Situation ethics never works. “I had an Aunt who was an athiest until her dead husband, thru Christ, came back and helped her come back to the faith…” and there you go – all athiest are wrong, right?

    • You presumably would study what atheists think and even the definition of atheism itself. Atheism as defined in philosophy also has been usually positive, arguing that God doesn’t exist, so the arguments made would likely be studied.

      • Damian Byrne

        No Michael. An atheist is merely someone who doesn’t have theistic beliefs. A-theist. Show me an atheist who says positively there is no god, none at all, of any description and that there cannot be.

        • There are plenty. Basically, choose any atheist philosopher, and I’ll count myself as agreeing with them too.

    • Fair point. Maybe I should’ve had him appoint a professor of Humanist studies.