The Necessity of Atheism

The Necessity of Atheism is a treatise on atheism by the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

It was 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 refusing to deny authorship, together with his friend and fellow student, Thomas Jefferson Hogg. A revised and expanded version was printed in 1813.

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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 characterization 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,” while historian David Berman argues that Shelley was an atheist, both because he characterized himself as such, and because “he denies the existence of God in both published works and private letters” during the same period.