Born into a wealthy landed English family of conservative beliefs, Shelley developed such independence of thought that he earned the nickname “mad Shelley.” By the time he entered Oxford University in 1810, he had already published juvenile verse and two Gothic romances. At Oxford he turned to more controversial subjects. His short theological polemic The Necessity of Atheism (1811), examined and refuted proofs traditionally offered for the existence of God, and then asked readers either to supply any deficiency in its reasoning or to embrace the truth that it contained, arguing that truth can never be detrimental to society.
Shelley’s pamphlet—which he contentiously sent to bishops and heads of the colleges at Oxford—coupled with his political writings and conspicuous efforts to support an imprisoned Irish journalist, brought him to the attention of the masters and fellows of University College. They summoned him to a meeting in March, 1811. There, instead of acknowledging authorship and reiterating his stance as a pursuer of truth, he refused to acknowledge the pamphlet and argued that because it had been printed anonymously, his questioners had no legal right to interrogate him concerning its authorship. The university then expelled him, not for his published religious or political beliefs, but for his stubbornness in answering questions, a matter of college discipline.
Soon after his expulsion, Shelley eloped with...
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