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This article is taken from PN Review 202, Volume 38 Number 2, November - December 2011.

Shelley and the Old and New Atheism Robert Griffiths
Two hundred years ago, Shelley was expelled from Oxford University for atheism. More precisely, he was expelled for not admitting, and not denying, at a hearing called by the Master and Fellows of University College, that he was in fact the author of the pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism. He was effectively expelled for insubordinate silence. His apparent shock at this sits innocently with the effort he had made to ensure discomfort to others, having sent copies of his work to all the bishops, and to the heads of all the university colleges. Unlike the more urbane non-theist, David Hume, whose spirit moves closely over the surface of Shelley's brief work, the poet was not prepared, or not disingenuous enough, to post intellectual arguments for atheism and then diplomatically deny that he actually held such views himself. Hume had said, famously, that he did not believe in the existence of atheists.

Yet, as a stepping stone across the river of disbelief, The Necessity of Atheism is a small and slippery place to stand. While it has been called the first printed avowal of atheism in England, it is not clear that we can even give it Richard Holmes' faint praise, 'neat and effective'.1 It is highly derivative, largely repeating in less forceful ways the arguments of Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion and those of the influential French philosophe,the Baron d'Holbach, author of the much more substantial attack on God, Système de la Nature. More worryingly, perhaps, in its rather ...


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