Percy Bysshe Shelley

On this date in 1792, Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of atheism's most passionate advocates, was born in Field Place, Sussex, England. As an 18-year-old, Shelley was expelled from Oxford University College for writing The Necessity of Atheism (1811), a pamphlet which opens: "There is no God." Shelley vigorously protested the imprisonment of an elderly publisher for distributing Thomas Paine's Age of Reason in another pamphlet, "A Letter to Lord Ellenborough." Shelley's Declaration of Rights further championed freedom of thought and press. Shelley's long, atheistic poem, "Queen Mab," was published in 1813, in which he wrote of religion that it had "taintest all thou look'st upon!" In A Refutation of Deism (1814), Shelley averred: "It is among men of genius and science that atheism alone is found." Freethought permeated his other writings, including Hymn to Intellectual Beauty (1816), The Revolt of Islam (1817), Peter Bell the Third (1819) and Ode to Liberty (1820). When Shelley eloped with 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook, the daughter of a barkeeper, his father disinherited him. The pair briefly went on a political speaking tour in Ireland. They had two children, but the marriage was unsuccessful, despite Shelley's increasing recognition as a poet. New scandal followed Shelley when he ran off with 16-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the daughter of atheist writer William Godwin and of Mary Wollstonecraft. The young couple fled to the continent, traveling for a time with Lord Byron. During a writing race between the trio, Mary produced her famous classic, Frankenstein. When Shelley's first wife committed suicide, Shelley was denied custody of their two sons because of his infidel views. Mary Godwin and Percy wed in 1816, and had a son, William. He obtained financial security when his grandfather bequeathed him money. The young couple moved to Italy, where Shelley penned Prometheus Unbound, a lyrical drama. Shelley, at Byron's invitation, sailed to Pisa to consult over a new magazine. Shelley drowned, tragically young at 29, along with two others, on the return trip when their yacht capsized in a storm. D. 1822.

“If ignorance of nature gave birth to gods, knowledge of nature is made for their destruction.”

—-Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Necessity of Atheism, 1811

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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