Wednesday 25 March 2015

The Necessity of Atheism

I always like a little literary controversy to start the day and if it features one Percy Bysshe Shelley, then all the better! Shelley was not a man who shied away from causing shock and, as a nineteen year old student of University College, Oxford, he made something of publishing splash!

The Necessity of Atheism

On this day in 1811, Shelley was expelled from Oxford. One might be forgiven for thinking that the cause might be something typically undergraduate, such as a prank gone awry or a little light misconduct but in fact, it was something far more scholarly than that.

In 1811, C and W Phillips printed Shelley’s work, The Necessity of Atheism. This treatise on atheism put forth a simple enough argument and that is, that one cannot believe in God without first-hand experience of that God or the irrefutable first hand statements of others. He argued that one should not believe in God simply because one is told that a creator must exist to have facilitated creation. At the time of the work’s publication, this was a hugely shocking statement for anyone to put forward in print. The work was published anonymously but Shelley and his co-author, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, were soon identified as the authors.

When copies of The Necessity of Atheism found their ways to the university authorities, it was greeted with shock. Soon rumour spread that the authors were Hogg and Shelley and when both refused to deny authorship, the outcry was enormous. Both Shelley and Hogg were expelled from Oxford as the book gained in notoriety and popularity, eventually being reprinted two years after its original publication; it remains in print to this day.


Unknown said...

I'd forgotten about Shelley's views on the J/C/I God. He seems to be repudiating the existence of a personal God, of considerable contradictions, whilst perceiving some sort of Eternal Spirit of the Universe based, maybe, on the 'logical harmony' of the fact that all life forms rub along together, largely happily enough, even whilst all eating each other. If anyone wants to read his tract, it's here. It was remarkable for a young student, I think, and he must have relished the flutter in the dovecote it caused. Even if he did get thrown out of Oxford.

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you! I think he probably loved the fuss it caused; it's certainly a step up on the usual student prank. ;-)