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Shelley – The Necessity of Atheism

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About the Book

From the Wikipedia article about The Necessity of Atheism

The Necessity of Atheism is an essay on atheism by the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, printed in 1811 by Charles and William Phillips in Worthing while Shelley was a student at University College, Oxford.

An enigmatically signed copy of the short tract was sent to all the heads of Oxford colleges at the University. At that time the content was so shocking to the authorities that he was rusticated for contumacy in his refusing to deny authorship, together with his friend and fellow student, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, who may have been co-author. A revised and expanded version of the text was included as one of the notes to Shelley’s poem Queen Mabin 1813, and some reprints with the title The Necessity of Atheism are based on this rather than the 1811 pamphlet.

Synopsis

The tract starts with the following rationale of the author’s goals:

As a love of truth is the only motive which actuates the Author of this little tract, he earnestly entreats that those of his readers who may discover any deficiency in his reasoning, or may be in possession of proofs which his mind could never obtain, would offer them, together with their objections to the Public, as briefly, as methodically, as plainly as he has taken the liberty of doing.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Necessity of Atheism
 

Shelley made a number of claims in Necessity, including that one’s beliefs are involuntary, and, therefore, that atheists do not choose to be so and should not be persecuted. Towards the end of the pamphlet he writes: “the mind cannot believe in the existence of a God.” Shelley signed the pamphlet, Thro’ deficiency of proof, AN ATHEIST, which gives an idea of the empiricist nature of Shelley’s beliefs. According to Berman, Shelley also believed himself to have “refuted all the possible types of arguments for God’s existence,” but Shelley himself encouraged readers to offer proofs if they possess them.

Opinion is divided upon the characterisation of Shelley’s beliefs, at the time of the writing of Necessity. At the very beginning of his note on the line “There is no God” in Canto VII of Queen Mab, published just two years later and based on Necessity, Shelley qualifies his definition of atheism:

There Is No God. This negation must be understood solely to affect a creative Deity. The hypothesis of a pervading Spirit co-eternal with the universe remains unshaken.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Queen Mab, Canto VII, Note 13
 

Shelley also quotes the Dutch pantheist Baruch Spinoza later in the Note, but there is no explicit statement of pantheistic views.

Shelley scholar Carlos Baker states that “the title of his college pamphlet should have been The Necessity of Agnosticism rather than The Necessity of Atheism,” while historian David Berman argues that Shelley was an atheist, both because he characterised himself as such, and because “he denies the existence of God in both published works and private letters” during the same period.

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