A Faithful Disbelief
The simplest definition of atheism is the belief that there is no God. But in Romanticism, atheism functions in a more complicated way, and very few poets and thinkers identified explicitly as atheists. During the early Romantic period, to be accused of atheism was a very serious charge, and carried with it political and social connotations, impugning the person accused with a desire to upend the very order of things. Percy Shelley and William Godwin explicitly identified themselves as atheists, but their thought is often colored by notions that can be characterized as theistic or deistic. Deism is the belief that the universe was created by a generally benevolent being, but of whom we can discern little more than his creation. It is important to note that in the freethinking era of Romanticism, atheism existed not as an independent position that was cut off from religious questions, but functioned within those questions and often determined their context. Shelley's poem, Queen Mab, and Byron's “Darkness,” each present a world where belief in God contributes to violence and error. A better way to understand atheism’s aim in this historical moment is to imagine it as the most uncompromising assault on all forms of superstition, whether mystical or religious. When a nation’s citizens succumb to the dogmatic superstition of the church or state, their capacity for morally and physically defending themselves against the abuses of those institutions disappears, since they no longer think or act freely, according to their reason. Atheism is the ultimate cure for superstition, which binds the people into submission. Atheism is also the ultimate infidelism (in-fidel or “not faithful”), maintaining a connection only to the demonstrable truths of science and reason.
Francisco Goy’s painting from 1798, a Witches Sabbath
shows Satan in the form of a goat leading a witches’ coven, an image not too different than that with which atheists were often associated.
Priestman, Martin. Romantic Atheism: Poetry and Freethought, 1780-1830. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1999.
Ryan, Robert M. The Romantic Reformation: Religious politics in English Literature, 1789-1824. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1997.