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Columnist Tom Harpur challenged us to think

By Scott Dunn, Sun Times, Owen Sound

Tom Harpur

Tom Harpur


Theologian and newspaper religion columnist Tom Harpur wanted people to think about why they believe what they do.

He was deeply devout, with a journalistic curiosity and rigour which he employed to write the controversial 2004 book, The Pagan Christ, in which he argued the evidence suggests Jesus Christ was an allegorical creation, not a living man.

Thomas W. Harpur died Jan. 2 in Lion's Head hospital, where he was admitted five days earlier due to kidney troubles, his brother, Dr. George Harpur, said Wednesday.

He's been a medical doctor in Tobermory for 42 years and so his brother was admitted to Lion's Head hospital to be closer to him for and for support. His three daughters live in Ottawa and Toronto and Mr. Harpur and his wife, Susan, only recently moved to the Walter's Falls area.

The day before he died he had been “regaling his daughters with tales of his teenage adventures with donkeys, then had them rolling in the aisles.” Mr. Harpur was 87. A funeral service was held in Richmond Hill at Marshall Funeral Home Saturday.

Mr. Harpur and his wife moved to near Walter's Falls in August. But they had lived in numerous local communities, including outside of Williamsford, outside of Meaford, in the town of Meaford, out by the tank range road, and then in a Collingwood condo, Dr. Harpur said.

His brother's “spirituality and ethics” columns appeared in The Sun Times and other Postmedia papers until 2015. He was former religion editor at the Toronto Star, beginning in 1971.

“He had a very deep and enduring conviction,” Dr. Harpur said, addressing any impression to the contrary left in an obituary published last week, in which he was quoted saying in 2011 “I'm not really a religious guy, you know.”

“Essentially what he was saying was, he's not a pious guy. He's not sort of pie-in-the-sky and away from the world as it exists. As he says in that, he's very firmly got his two feet planted on the ground. And he's very practical and in touch with the reality.”

In The Pagan Christ, Dr. Harpur said his brother was driven to run down sources to find evidence of the truth.

“It's interesting. People have very little difficulty with things like Aesop's fables where they have talking lions and things,” Dr. Harpur said.

“They accept that they're extremely important principles embodied in the story. And here we have accounts in which, my brother would say, they were sacred myths, where they never necessarily happened but are internally true.”

Dr. Harpur said his brother should be remembered for his concern that people should devote attention to the spiritual part of their lives. “And to do so in the sense of examining what we believe and why we believe it,” he said.

He wanted to get people thinking “rather than simply accepting what was put before them.”

While addressing atheism in his last column to appear in The Sun Times, he wrote “I haven't got enough faith to be an atheist.

“To believe that the vast galaxies and their billions of stars or the overwhelmingly intricate weavings of the human mind, the numinous glories of the world, of music, or of love and passion in our connectedness to one another - that all these and other miracles of life are the consequences of pure chance, a fluke result of some cataclysmic cosmic lottery, takes far more credulity than I can muster.”

Mr. Harpur was an Anglican minister for 17 years, he ran a radio call-in show, was a TV broadcaster, author and award-winning newspaper reporter and columnist, according to a profile of him in the Ryerson Review of Journalism published in 1986. His brother cited that profile when questions turned to biographical details. That article and several others about him are found at

Mr. Harpur received a Rhodes Scholarship for his classical studies at the University of Toronto, then studied the humanities at Oxford before returning to U of T's Wycliffe College to study theology. He was ordained in 1956.

The Ryerson profile said Harpur in the early 1960s perceived “most clergy preferred to ignore the moral issues that were shaping people's lives – religious controversy, civil rights, and the Vietnam War.”

His media involvement began with an open-line religion show, “Harpur's Heaven and Hell,” on a country and western radio station in north Toronto. It was a success but some listeners wrote to his bishop “accusing him of heresy and demanding he be defrocked.”

He wrote opinion pieces for the Star, resigned his teaching position at Wycliffe and accepted the Star's offer to be its religion editor, the profile said.

The Star's obituary about Harpur said he'd travelled to more than 20 countries and met Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama.

The funeral home death notice records that Mr. Harpur is survived by his wife Susan, daughters Elizabeth (Lory), Margaret (Geoff) and Mary Catherine (Steve), siblings Elizabeth, George and Jane, and granddaughters Madeleine, Marie Claire, Gabrielle and Adrianna.


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