Atheism For Dummies
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Just expressing an atheist opinion out loud was enough to set the wheels of British justice in motion in the 19th century. But Shelley went beyond that, arguing that atheism was a necessary position — the only one that could be reasonably held.

Even as late as the 19th century, blasphemy was still an actual, arrestable crime in England. Simply standing up in public and expressing the opinion that God didn’t exist could, and often did, get a person locked up.

The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was never one to hold back an opinion — and despite the laws against blasphemy, this included his opinion that God was pretend. While an Oxford student in 1811, Shelley wrote a strongly worded and well-reasoned pamphlet titled “The Necessity of Atheism,” printed up a few hundred copies, and quietly scattered them around the Oxford grounds.

Shelley examined three types of evidence — human senses, human reason, and the testimony of others — dismantling each in turn as a valid foundation for belief. Having done so in under a thousand words, he concluded that atheism wasn’t just sound and reasonable, but the only real choice left standing.

In his one act of caution, Shelley left his name off the pamphlet, signing only “An Atheist.” No one who knew Shelley was fooled by this act; between the mastery of language and the sheer cheeky nerve of it all, every finger pointed right at the 19-year-old poet. Within the week, he was hauled in front of the wall of frowns that was the Oxford Council of Deans.

When one of the deans asked him point blank if he wrote the pamphlet, Shelley didn’t admit to it, but he didn’t deny it either. As a result, he was suspended from Oxford and sent home, furious.

Percy and his father (a Member of Parliament without the slightest sense of humor) couldn’t stand each other, and this latest development made things much worse. Without Percy’s permission, the elder Shelley worked out a deal with Oxford to let his son back in. Just one condition — Percy had to publicly renounce his atheism. Shelley refused at which point he was permanently expelled from Oxford.

This expulsion had such a devastating effect on his career that he was forced to settle for becoming one of the finest poets in the history of the English language.

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Dale McGowan, PhD, writes the popular secular blog The Meming of Life, teaches secular parenting workshops across North America, and is executive director of Foundation Beyond Belief, a humanist charitable organization. He has been interviewed in major publications, such as Newsweek and the New York Times, and was 2008 Harvard Humanist of the Year.

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