ROBERT GR I F F I THS
Shelley and the Old and New Atheism
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 prudish use of philosophical jargon and its high-mindedness, it lacks the sincerity, as well as the deft sardonicism, of the work of earlier and more passionate atheists, such as the priest Jean Meslier, who left his apostasy to be read, and appreciated by Voltaire, after his death. Still, Shelley was but 18.
Today, of course, we have New Atheism, and apparently a new atheism debate. At the centre of New Atheism is the biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, over which Hume’s spirit moves almost as closely as over Shelley’s work. Close to the centre is a modern d’Holbach, the materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell, an attempt to provide a reductive, evolutionary account of the source of religious belief. Then loosely associated with these are the neuroscientist Sam Harris and more diverse authors such as Christopher Hitchens. Reading this material, it is noticeable how the New Atheism debate goes over a great deal of ground that had been very hard worked in the older atheism debate that broke out in the late eighteenth century and which provided the intellectual backdrop to Shelley’s early development. In this prior debate, Hume, d’Alembert, Helvétius, Diderot, d’Holbach, Voltaire and others provided a sustained assault on theism that is not matched by contemporary writing. Against these ‘infidels’, in Britain at least, Joseph Priestley was to write reams in a heroic attempt to reconcile Christianity, philosophy and natural science.2 In the current debate, the role of Priestley seems to have fallen to the indefatigable Alister McGrath, author of Dawkin’s God and The Dawkins Delusion.
Of course, these two debates do have differences. New Atheism is largely driven by evolutionary thinking. But it is clear that neither Hume’s arguments nor those of d’Holbach (or Shelley) require the truth of evolution. All these writers thought that philosophy and science had already made belief in the existence of God untenable. D’Holbach argued, bluntly, that ‘Man … is the work of nature … He exists in Nature … He is submitted to the laws of Nature … He cannot deliver himself from them’,3 in short that the universe, and man, are purely natural things governed by natural law. A Victorian public that had been familiar with such a position for up to a hundred years might not have flinched as much as it did from the implications of Darwin’s. There is another interesting difference. In the late eighteenth century, the atheism debate arose from the intellectual foment that led up to and beyond the French Revolution. In Britain, this made it relatively easy to view atheism as a belief system, or lack-of-belief system, that merely led to violence and anarchy. This was one of the reasons why, in Britain, public expression of atheism, such as Shelley’s, was problematic. Today, by contrast, the New Atheism debate is spurred by the alleged developing tensions between Christian and Islamic cultures. Sam Harris is concerned that both Islamic fundamentalism and the Christian fundamentalism that seems to influence thinking in the United States are leading to social unrest, terrorism and war. Nowadays, atheism is partly seen as an antidote to religious extremism, whereas in late-eighteenth-century Britain, atheism itself – Shelley included – was seen as a threat to the stability of Christian society.
What is striking about Shelley’s contribution to the atheism debate is, of course, the fact that he is a poet and not, primarily, a philosopher or natural scientist. There is, actually, something slightly uncomfortable in watching the young Shelley put on his philosopher’s cloak, or scientist’s lab coat, in order to storm the churches. He awkwardly decants some interesting assumptions for a poet. We are told, ‘A close examination of the validity of the proofs adduced to support any proposition is the only secure way of attaining truth’.4 Later we are given, ‘no testimony can be admitted which is contrary to reason; reason is founded on the evidence of the senses’. What is slightly odd is that any poet should believe such things, that only reason conceived narrowly, or the evidence of the senses, provide us with secure ways of attaining truth.
What is then clear is that either as he wrote, or pretty soon after, even Shelley did not really believe these things, as it became obvious to him that poetry was a different kind of discovery process to philosophy and science; that the poet was able to show truth in symbol and image, and that the truths shown in this way were not necessarily open to rational demonstration, nor did they necessarily stand in any clear-cut relationship to the evidence of the senses. In the Preface to Alastor, written in 1815, he had moved beyond the narrowly rational empiricism of The Necessity of Atheism to
Robert Griffiths: Shelley and the Old and New Atheism