On this day in 1811, Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from the University of Oxford for publishing a pamphlet entitled ‘The Necessity of Atheism’. Shelley is best known as a famous English poet, who was part of a group of fellow prominent writers including his wife Mary Shelley and Lord Byron. As well as being as being an author, Shelley was a radical political activist who advocated non-violent protest. Having begun study at Oxford in 1810, it is often said that he only attended one lecture during his time there. He published several works whilst at university, but it was his atheistic pamphlet which led to his appearance before the College fellows and his eventual expulsion as he refused to deny authorship. ‘The Necessity of Atheism’ argued that people do not choose their beliefs and thus atheists shouldn’t be persecuted. However it is unclear whether Shelley was personally an atheist; he may have instead been an agnostic or a pantheist. Either way, this document is an interesting insight into Shelley’s views and shows how atheism was stigmatised in the early nineteenth century. Atheism is far more commonplace now, at least in England, and no-one is going to be expelled from university for expressing their beliefs. Of course in some more strictly religious countries, atheism is still considered blasphemy. Perhaps the ignorant and discriminatory treatment Shelley suffered is not as far withdrawn from modern times as we may like to think.
“Truth has always been found to promote the best interests of mankind. Every reflecting mind must allow that there is no proof of the existence of a Deity”