As a senior minister with the Metropolitan United Church and well-known syndicated religion columnist, Bob Ripley’s personal and professional life for the past three decades was defined by his faith.
Now, five years after stepping down from the pulpit, he has made a stunning transformation, declaring himself an atheist after what he calls a gradual journey of self-discovery.
In his new book, Life Beyond Belief: A Preacher’s Deconversion, Ripley – who served as minister at Sarnia’s Dunlop United Church from 1987-94 – explains how a renewed curiosity and appreciation for science and concerns with certain “distasteful” biblical passages fuelled a profound investigation into his own beliefs.
“I had come to the conclusion that all religion was man-made,” he told The Journal. “I wrote the book to give people a fuller understanding of why somebody would make such a 180 degree turn.”
The journey from believer to unbeliever started roughly seven years ago, Ripley explains, crediting his decision to take early retirement from the Church to waning passion for preaching.
“The fire had gone out of my belly,” he said, adding the transformation from a devout senior religious figure to skeptical atheist did not take a “linear” path.
Ripley credits scientific discovery as “pivotal” in propelling his journey towards atheism by providing answers to profound questions of human existence that were previously only explained by religion.
“In the history of our species, when we didn’t understand ‘who we were, how we got here’ we needed to create stories and mythology that would give an explanation,” he said.
“As science has increased our understanding of how we got here and how huge the universe is, then the need for stories and mythology to explain them has dwindled.”
Now living in London, Ripley says the response to his de-conversion has been mostly positive. One former congregant told him his contributions as a minister are still valued, even if he no longer identifies as a Christian.
“She expressed great appreciation for what I did for her and her family while I was their minister,” he added. “That really comforts me … my change of mind has not negated the good that I did in almost 35 years in ministry.”
Ripley will be at Sarnia’s The Book Keeper on Saturday, Oct. 25 from 10 a.m. to noon to sign copies of his book.