The Parable of the Terrible Father

This is a guest post by Kiel Christianson.


Once there was an extremely wealthy man who had one son. This man’s wealth was seemingly without limits, and his love for his son was said to be boundless. The son’s mother had died in childbirth, so the father was the sole parent and guardian of his son.

The wealthy man promised all his wealth would be endowed to his son, as long as the boy did what he was instructed to do throughout his life. He told the boy to take care of his home, to keep it clean and tidy. The father told him to watch over their neighborhood and help protect his neighbors. He told him to work hard and maintain the integrity and profitability of the family business, from which all their immense wealth derived.

Most of all, he said, the boy must love him, and love him without question, no matter what the son saw, heard, or thought about the world around him.

As the boy grew, he followed his father’s rules meticulously. He kept the family home immaculately clean, inside and out. The son helped all of his neighbors in times of need, from assisting with yard work to comforting them in times of their own personal loss. His largess and kindness spread far beyond his immediate neighbors and friends, throughout the city, state, and nation; he set up food banks and soup kitchens to feed the poor, assured financing for schools and housing for the poor, and fought for justice and peace among people and nations. The family business thrived under the son’s watchful eye and active involvement.

In short, the son did every single thing that his father had demanded of him beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Every single thing except for one, that is: In his heart of hearts, he did not love his father. He did not like the way his father would allow his employees to suffer, how he would turn a blind eye on hungry mothers, children in need of medical care, and people who worked under the father’s auspices who wore ignorance as if it were a badge of honor. These people were the worst of all, for they worked actively to block advances in medicine, in social programs, in environmental stewardship, all of which would benefit hundreds of millions of people, and they did so in the name of the boy’s father. They misrepresented the man’s wishes, whether they did so on purpose or not. Either way it did not matter to the son. As far as he was concerned, his father might not be able to ease all of the world’s hardships, even with his immense wealth and power. But the man could have, at least, set his craven employees straight — or even better, fire them all — yet he did not.

So the son could not bring himself to love his father without question, and wondered, quite often, whether he was able to love him at all.

Nevertheless, he obeyed every other commandment from his father, and did so with deeper devotion than any other relative, employee, or toady. As a reward for this profound level of filial piety, the father one day called his son to him, and said this:

“Son, you have done everything I have asked of you, and you have done it all better than I could ever have expected of you or any other person. Yet I know that you do not love me.”

The son replied, “Father, you can make people do things, but you cannot make them feel things. Surely you, in all your wisdom and acumen, realize this.”

The father said, “I require love. Because you do not love me, I am sending you away. I will never speak to you again, nor will any of my employees, friends, or others from our family speak to you or acknowledge your presence. You are persona non grata from now on as long as any of us may live. I am only doing this because I love you so much.”

The son left the opulent mansion that had been his home. The father claimed to feel great sadness, but he had demanded love, and that love had not been forthcoming. That was that, and the son died poor, sick, and alone after intense, prolonged, and abject suffering. The father, although he knew this would happen, never once softened his stance, and neither did any of his operatives.

Thus ends the parable of The Terrible Father.


Kiel Christianson is an associate professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Illinois. Along with scientific articles, he publishes poetry, essays, political commentary, travel features, and restaurant reviews, and he is also a senior writer for

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.