The Necessity of Atheism

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1811 title page. Worthing: C. and W. Phillips.
A page from the 1811 Worthing printing. Bodleian Library.
A page from the 1811 Worthing printing. Bodleian Library.

"The Necessity of Atheism" is an essay on atheism by the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, printed in 1811 by C. and W. Phillips in Worthing while Shelley was a student at University College, Oxford. A copy of the first version was sent as a short tract signed enigmatically to all 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. A revised and expanded version was printed in 1813.[1]


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

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"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."[2] Shelley signed the pamphlet, Thro' deficiency of proof, AN ATHEIST,[2] 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,"[3] but Shelley himself encouraged readers to offer proofs if they possess them.

Opinion is divided upon the characterisation of Shelley's beliefs, as presented in Necessity. 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,"[4] 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"[3] during the same period. At the very beginning of his essay, Shelley qualifies his definition of atheism:

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"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, The Necessity of Atheism

Taken together with his quotation of the Dutch pantheist Benedict Spinoza later in the essay, this suggests that at the very least Shelley considered some form of pantheism to remain within the realm of intellectual respectability[clarification needed]. The essay does not, however, provide any further indication of whether Shelley himself shared such views.


  1. The Necessity of Atheism, 1813.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Shelley, Percy Bysshe, The Necessity of Atheism and Other Essays. Prometheus Books (The Freethought Library), 1993. ISBN 0-87975-774-4.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Berman, David. A History of Atheism in Britain. 1988.
  4. Baker, Carlos. Shelley's Major Poetry. Princeton, 1948.

Further reading

  • Albery, John, et al., Shelley and Univ. 1810–1811, University College, Oxford, 20 June 1992. (Papers delivered by the Master and three Fellows of University College at a seminar to commemorate the bicentenary of Shelley's birth.)
  • Shelley, Percy Bysshe, The Necessity of Atheism and Other Essays. Prometheus Books (The Freethought Library), 1993. ISBN 0-87975-774-4.


  • Hoffmann, R. Joseph. "The Necessity of Atheism, The Indispensability of Doubt." The New Oxonian, 27 August 2010.
  • Peterfreund, Stuart. "An Early Response to Shelley's 'The Necessity of Atheism'." Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. 36, (1987), pp. 26–31.
  • Hiroshi, Harata. "Shelley and The Necessity of Atheism: His True Voice and its Background." Bulletin of Holly Spirit Junior College, 15, 28–39, 1987-03-30.
  • Jones, Frederick L. "Hogg and the Necessity of Atheism." PMLA, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Jun. 1937), pp. 423–426.
  • "Poet of Revolution." Book Review: Shelley by Newman Ivey White. Time, 16 December 1940.
  • Evans, F. B. "Shelley, Godwin, Hume, and the Doctrine of Necessity." Studies in Philology, (1940), 37: 632‑640.
  • Hogle, Jerrold E. Shelley's process: radical transference and the development of his major works. Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Sloan, Gary. "Shelley: Angelic Atheist." Liberator, 13 October 2003.
  • Dumain, Ralph. "The Autodidact Project: Percy Bysshe Shelley". 2007. Online link:
  • Dumain, Ralph. "It must be Shelley." Reason & Society, 26 June 2007.
  • Barnard, Ellsworth. Shelley's Religion. New York: Russell & Russell, 1964.
  • Pulos, C.E. The Deep Truth: A Study of Shelley's Skepticism. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P, 1954.
  • Abbey, Lloyd. Destroyer and Preserver: Shelley's Poetic Skepticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1979.
  • Brazell, James. Shelley and the Concept of Humanity: A Study of His Moral Vision. Salzburg: Inst. fur Englische Sprache und Literatur, Univ. Salzburg, 1972.
  • Reiman, Donald H. Intervals of Inspiration: The Skeptical Tradition and the Psychology of Romanticism. Greenwood, FL: Penkevill, 1988.
  • Shelley, Brian. Shelley and Scripture: The Interpreting Angel. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994.
  • Cooper, Andrew M. Doubt and Identity in Romantic Poetry. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.
  • Fuller, David. "Shelley and Jesus." Durham University Journal, 85.54 (2) (1993): 211–223.

External links