Upon learning of the drowning of Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1822, the London Courier took a shot at the deceased poet’s atheism by writing, “now he knows whether there is a God or no.” Shelley’s wife, Mary, who had published Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus only four years prior, probably didn’t enjoy the jab at her late husband, victim of a sudden storm in the Gulf of Spezia.
Percy Shelley never achieved widespread fame during his lifetime. After death his writing spread—The Cenci, Prometheus Unbound, and Hellas became classics. Along the way the poet penned essays and journal entires describing his transition from mystical pantheism to atheism. In 1811 he published “The Necessity of Atheism,” for which he received flack from the religiously inclined. Two years later, while writing his poem, Queen Mab, he expanded and revised the essay.
Shelley was living during England’s golden age of scientific discovery. As a student at Oxford he fell in love with the new technology of ballooning. He equated the epic flights of silk balloons, which would soon carry humans, with liberation, himself once securing a revolutionary pamphlet on a number of balloons that he launched from a Lynmouth beach.
Shelley’s poetry was filled with scientific wonder. He studied under James Lind, the Scottish physician most famous for conducting the first experimental method by treating sailors with citrus to cure scurvy. While many of Shelley’s contemporaries were searching for metaphysical explanations of the growing fields of biology and chemistry, Shelley recognized poetry in the processes of nature.
The young poet found Christianity detestable, infusing his thoughts on psychology with scientific ideas. His amalgam of speculative journaling—he shared diaries with Mary—laid the foundation for her to dream up Frankenstein and usher in a new form of literature, the science fiction novel. Just as Shelley was influenced by researchers around him, those same scientists drew inspiration from the poetic materialism expressed in his verses.
In “The Necessity of Atheism,” Shelley writes that man first feared then adored the elements, paying homage to the planet by learning to control them. Humans then started to simplify categories—which is true in light of modern neuroscience as well as the historical evolution from polytheism to monotheism—and imagined a single agent as the source of all of nature.
Mounting from cause to cause, mortal man has ended by seeing nothing; and it is in this obscurity that he has placed his God; it is in this darksome abyss that his uneasy imagination has always labored to fabricate chimeras, which will continue to afflict him until his knowledge of nature chases these phantoms which he has always so adored.
It is our ignorance, he continues, that forces our minds to fill in gaps by invoking divinity. Through study we dispel this ignorance, a phenomenon Shelley witnessed firsthand with the discovery of numerous elements, gases, and compounds. Previously our ignorance kept us from unraveling nature’s secret process; when the process is understood knowledge replaces mysticism. He sums this up succinctly:
If ignorance of nature gave birth to gods, knowledge of nature is made for their destruction.
An educated man turns away from superstition in Shelley’s estimation. Education is essential because religion is effectively a struggle for power. Nations are built on the belief of a god. If a handful of men claim to communicate with and through this deity they seize power from the populace. Since God is invented by man, it is through man that he is made known. Make people believe in your story and you can write whatever narrative you’d like.
Our pride keeps us believing, our vanity constructed in such a way so that we stiffen before difficulties. Best to invoke a metaphysical explanation and pre-ordained destiny than face the indifferent realities of biology. This indifference confuses Shelley: a being that we endow with all the goodness in the world while turning a blind eye to endless atrocities. What man receives in return for his adoration is silence, which Shelley expresses in a sentence that has formed the basis of skepticism throughout the ages:
If God wishes to be known, cherished, thanked, why does he not show himself under his favorable features to all these intelligent beings by whom he wishes to be loved and adored?
If this deity were so all-powerful as to demand of us our complete subjugation, Shelley continues, he would have made himself known to require our fear and respect. In one of the essays most poetic lines, he lays out the scenario:
Instead of hanging the sun in the vault of the firmament, instead of scattering stars without order, and the constellations which fill space, would it not have been more in conformity with the views of a God so jealous of his glory and so well-intentioned for mankind, to write, in a manner not subject to dispute, his name, his attributes, his permanent wishes in ineffaceable characters, equally understandable to all the inhabitants of the earth?
His omnipotence is disproven by the need for prayer and the necessity of temples. How can humans offend or resist something all-powerful? If he is truly inconceivable why do we bother wasting time contemplating him? Even Shelley knew the power of the caps lock:
IF HE HAS SPOKEN, WHY IS THE UNIVERSE NOT CONVINCED?
Atheism is a necessity to the thinking mind, Shelley concludes. He was watching the greatest minds of his generation cure longstanding diseases, create new compounds, and harness the powers of chemistry. Carl Linnaeus’s coding system was leading to progress in evolutionary theory. Religion was being exposed as the governing system that it is. If man need pay tribute to nature and not ether, why continue to to make manipulative men more powerful?
The mind of Shelley has held up in the two centuries since his drowning. He discovered firsthand, however briefly before he succumbed, the extraordinary forces of nature. Toward the end of “The Necessity of Atheism” his ignorance of whether we exist before and after death. It just wasn’t that important to him. He knew that life is too full of wonder without the need of invoking divinity. We still profit from such advice to this day.
Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.