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“The Necessity of Atheism

Shelley biographer Ann Wroe delivers the inaugural BHA Shelley Lecture

Andrew Copson, Ann Wroe and Richard Dawkins at the 2011 Shelley LectureThe British Humanist Association’s annual event programme has expanded! A packed hall of 300 attended the inaugural BHA Shelley Lecture at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History on Tuesday. Ann Wroe, herself an Oxford alumna with a doctorate in medieval history, and now an editor at The Economist and a biographer of Percy Bysshe Shelley, spoke about the poet’s life and work.

Principally Wroe’s lecture, entitled ‘The Necessity of Atheism – Then and Now’ focused on Shelley’s initially anonymous pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism and its wider significance both socially and in the author’s own, short life. March 2011 marks 200 years since the controversial tract was printed, distributed round Oxford and, swiftly, burned. Having begged religious authorities for proofs of the existence of God, which were at best ignored, Shelley was soon expelled from the university.

Our chair for the evening was BHA Vice President Richard Dawkins, and as Professor Dawkins listened from the front row, Ann spoke of the very real ‘fear’ that Shelley’s atheist publications induced in his readers (including his daunted first wife), pointing out that for all Shelley’s self-conscious radicalism, the poet was of course rather less ‘incendiary’ than some writers today on the subject of theistic delusions!

Ann Wroe delivers the inaugural Shelley LectureWroe explained how Shelley sometimes revelled in expressing his atheism, at times almost to the point that it seemed he exaggerated his views for the sake of wild controversy. Shelley, who kept abreast of all the latest science and was fascinated by fossils and the deep time they implied, seemed to believe that science and reason were not only indefinitely progressive, but that civilization would rapidly answer every question there was to be asked. It’s a view which the lecturer contrasted with that of many modern scientists, citing BHA Distinguished Supporter Brian Cox as an example, who seem very aware that each scientific answer – as well as genuinely explaining the world and enlightening us in the process – does also bring new questions, new intellectual problems, new wonders to be examined. Science’s great explanatory power, paradoxically, also makes us humble.

Wroe also expressed some sympathy for the later Shelley’s poetical notion of the ‘spirit of sweet human love’ which the poet hoped would transform society and the world. Despite the way we might think about and characterise romantic poets, it remains unclear whether Shelley held out a greater hope for spiritual love, or for cogent reason, as the more transformative power. Either way, Wroe lamented that Shelley’s glorious visions of the future in many ways remain distant ideals.

The Shelley Lecture will be held each March from now on, and will explore an aspect of Humanism and humanist thought related to literature and culture, to complement the Darwin Lecture on an aspect of evolution, the Voltaire Lecture on philosophy and the Holyoake Lecture, held in Manchester.

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