Notes on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Necessity of Atheism”

This is part one of a three part post series that explores some issues and ideas proposed to me by Mack Hassler as part of the independent study that he’s conducting for me on the works of Philip K. Dick.  He asked me to consider the ways in which the thinking of Shelley and Dick are interrelated on the level of metaphysics and belief.  Also, he suggested that I bring those things around to the way their ideas were disseminated as well as the way I communicate online through this blog.  This and the following three posts represent my findings.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “The Necessity of Atheism.” Romantic Period Writings 1798-1832: An Anthology. Eds. Zachary Leader and Ian Haywood. New York: Routledge, 1998. 77-79.

You may find “The Necessity of Atheism” online here.

NB: Shelley and his friend, T.J. Hogg, were kicked out of Oxford for publishing this (69).

Shelley begins his proof by examining belief. Mind/active and perception/passive. The mind is active in investigating that which is perceived in order to clarify, but the mind cannot disbelief that which it perceives to be true. What Shelley calls, “the strength of belief,” is determined by, in order of highest to lowest importance, our senses, our experience (reason), and the experience of others. And it from these things that belief in a Deity derives.

Working through these three strengths, he admits that if the Deity appears to someone via the senses, then that person must belief the Deity exists. However, he employs what is best described as Occam’s Razor to seek the simpler explanation for the cause and effect of the creation of the universe or one’s own birth rather than the more complicated idea of a Deity. Finally, he establishes that we cannot trust other’s belief in a Deity that, “commanded that he should be believed, he proposed the highest rewards for faith, eternal punishments for disbelief” (79). Belief for Shelley must be voluntary and established by the perception of an individual’s senses.

He closes the essay by reprimanding those who would punish disbelievers, because one must and should only belief what they experience via the senses. Furthermore, one has no choice but to believe this way without the influence of external pressure. And, any person with a reflective mind will admit that there has been no proof for the existence of a Deity.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.