Introduction | A Priestley Polemicist | A Faithful Disbelief  | Mad Shelley | Escaping the Infernal Abode | Kubla Khan

Mad Shelley

Archetype of the Creator
For Shelley the archetype of any creator is reason, as shown in William Blake’s 1795 engraving, “The Archetype of the Creator.”
The Necessity of Atheism is a short philosophical tract distributed by Shelley as a pamphlet in 1811. Notoriously, this brief polemic against God and Christianity got Shelley kicked out of Oxford University. “Religion fetters a reasoning mind with the very bonds which restrain the unthinking one from mischief,” Shelley wrote to his father around the time of the essay’s composition. The Necessity of Atheism tries to demonstrate through logical propositions that the only position a thinking being can hold toward the existence of God is that he does not exist. Rational proof dictates the inevitability, the necessity, of this conclusion. Shelley defends his atheism by explaining the deficiencies in what he considers to be the three ways that are available to us to argue the proof of God’s existence: “the evidence of the senses,” “reason,” and “testimony,” or what other people tell him. Concluding that none of the three sources proves the existence of a deity, Shelley writes “as belief is a passion of the mind, no degree of criminality is attachable to disbelief; and that they only are reprehensible who neglect to remove the false medium through which their mind views any subject of discussion.” Shelley distributed copies of the pamphlet to a bookshop in Oxford, in addition to sending it to all the bishops and college heads of the university. He did not sign his name to The Necessity of Atheism, but by late March (it was distributed around Valentine’s Day), it soon became apparent who the author was. He was expelled on March 25, 1811, after refusing to declare his authorship of the pamphlet.

Brent Robida

Selected Bibliography

Holmes, Richard. Shelley: The Pursuit. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1975.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Necessity of Atheism. 1813. The Necessity of Atheism and other Essays. New York:
     Prometheus Books, 1993.