A Fragment of A Refutation of Deism

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

[This is apparently a fragment of an early draft of a portion of A Refutation of Deism. An examination of the speech of Eusebes on Design will establish this fact. It is in the Notebook containing the Essay on Christianity, and was first published by A. H. Koszul in Shelley's Prose in the Bodleian Manuscripts (1910). The two pages are mutilated exactly as shown in Koszul. For a detailed description of the manuscript see Koszul, pages 126‑127. In the present text the broken or incomplete line is indicated by a slant line (/).]

The word God signifies an intelligent Creator & / he any force in terms, or discrimination in of Nature. Nature is the mass of events, all things which by means of our ser / and which is therefore the only legitim / deductions are founded upon their evidence / some Being above, or beyond Nature, its A & whose intelligence is the guide of its ‑tinged God from Nature, that the mis have fallen be confounding them, may / The attributes of God are usually supposed / omnipresence, infinite goodness, & immutab / of his existence are supposed to be afforded / displayed in the Universe . . . It is propo / these proofs, & then to discuss the p / universe, & how far the qualities usual / compatible with each other. / [The following portion of the fragment is in pencil.] in favor of the existence of a Deity. / a Deity. / ine the structure of a / aker. No work of Man the contemplation of / was an artificer the Universe is / shall be proved / signed, adapted / philosophical / inferred. The / erse; and it infer a / e, design and parent in the a popular / ntrivance?

Simply because innumerable instances of machines having been contrived by human art are present to our mind, because we are acquainted with persons who could construct such machines; but if, having no previous knowledge of any contrivance of art, we had accidentally found a watch upon the ground, we should have been justified in concluding that it was a thing of Nature, that it was a combination of matter with whose cause we were unacquainted, and that the attempt to account for the origin of its existence would be equally presumptuous and unsatisfactory.

The analogy which some philosophers have attempted to establish between the contrivances of human art and the various existences of the Universe is inadmissible. We attribute these effects to human intelligence, because we know beforehand that human intelligence is capable of producing them. Take away this knowledge and the grounds of our reasoning will be destroyed. But our entire ignorance of the Divine Nature leaves this analogy defective in its most essential point of comparison.

What consideration then remains to be urged by the Deist in support of the creation of the Universe by a supreme Being? Its admirable fitness for the production of certain effects, that wonderful consent of all its parts, that universal harmony by whose invariable laws innumerable systems of worlds perform their stated revolutions, and the blood is driven thro' the veins of the minutest animalcule that sports in the corruption of an insect's lymph; on this account did the Universe require an intelligent Creator because it exists producing invariable effects: and inasmuch as it is admirably organized for the production of these effects, so the more did it require a creative intelligence.

Thus we have arrived at the Deist's true proposition, "That whatever exists, producing certain effects, stands in need of a Creator, and the more conspicuous is its fitness for the production of these effects, the more certain will be our conclusion that it could not have existed from eternity, but derives its origin from an intelligent creator."

In what respects then does God differ from the Universe? From the admirable fitness of the Universe to its end, the Deist infers that it must have been created. How much more fitness to his end must exist in the author of this Universe? If we find great difficulty from its admirable arrangement in conceiving that the Universe has existed from all eternity, and to resolve this difficulty suppose a Creator, how much more clearly must we perceive the necessity of this very Creator's creation whose perfections comprehend an arrangement far more accurate and just.

The belief of an infinity of creative and created Gods, each more eminently requiring an intelligent author of their being than the foregoing, is a direct consequence of these premises. It is impossible indeed to prescribe limits to learned error when philosophy relinquishes experience for speculation. The assumption that the Universe is a design leads to a conclusion that there are an infinity of creative and created Gods, which is absurd. [1]

Until it is clearly proved that the Universe was created, we may reasonably suppose that it has endured from all eternity. In a case where two propositions are diametrically opposite, the mind believes that which is less incomprehensible; it is easier to suppose that the Universe has existed from all eternity than to conceive an eternal being capable of creating it. If the mind sinks beneath the weight of one, is it an alleviation to increase the intolerability of the burden?

A man knows, not only that he now is, but that there was a time when he did not exist; consequently there must have been a cause. But we can only infer from effects causes exactly adequate to those effects. There certainly is a generative power which is effected by particular instruments; we cannot prove that it is inherent in these instruments; nor is the contrary hypothesis capable of demonstration. We admit that the generative power is incomprehensible, but to suppose that the same effects are produced by an eternal Omniscient and Omnipotent Being leaves the cause in the same obscurity, but renders it more incomprehensible.

Of the argument in favor of a Deity from the universality of a belief in his existence. God may be defined to be the intelligent Creator and Preserver of the Universe. How small is the proportion of those who believe in this Being to the thousands who are prevented by their occupations from ever bestowing one thought upon the subject, to the millions who worship butterflies, bones, feathers, monkeys, calabashes and serpents. The word God, like other abstractions, signifies the agreement of certain propositions rather than the presence of any idea. Certainly not the half of mankind ever heard the reasoning on which philosophers ground the existence of God; nor has an idea of the Cause of all things yet been received into any human mind. If we found our belief in the existence of God on the universal consent of mankind, we are duped by the most palpable of sophisms. The word God cannot mean at the same time a snake, an ape, a bone, a calabash, a Trinity and a Unity. The universal belief of mankind in the divinity of a calabash would afford no proof of the Trinity; nor from the simple fact that few nations have neglected to endow real or imaginary beings with human qualities could we justly infer an Intelligent and supreme First Cause.

But there is a tendency to devotion in the human mind. Scarcely any people however barbarous have been discovered, who do not acknowledge with reverence and awe the supernatural causes of the natural effects which they experience. They worship, it is true, the vilest and more inanimate substance, but they believe firmly in their holiness and power, owning thus their dependence on what they can neither see nor conceive.

That credulity should be gross in proportion to the ignorance of the mind which it enslaves is strictly consistent with the principles of human Nature. The idiot, the child, and the savage agree in attributing their own passions and propensities to those inanimate substances by which they are either benefited or injured. The former become Gods and the latter Demons; hence sacrifices and prayers by the means of which the rude theologian imagines that he may confirm the beneficence of the one or mitigate the malevolence of the other. He has averted the wrath of a powerful enemy by supplications and submission, he has secured the assistance of his neighbor by offerings, he has felt his own fury subside before the entreaties of a vanquished foe, and has cherished gratitude for the kindness of another. Therefore does he believe that the elements will listen to his vows. He is capable of love and hatred towards his fellow beings, and is variously impelled by these principles to benefit or injure them. The source then of his error is sufficiently obvious: when the winds, the waves, and the atmosphere act in such a manner as to thwart or forward his designs, he attributes to them the same propensities of whose existence in his own mind he is conscious, when he is instigated by benefits to kindness, or by injuries to revenge. The only knowledge at which we are capable of arriving of cause and effect is the knowledge of their necessary connection and the subsequent inference of one to the other. We call that event the cause of another which invariably precedes and is connected with it. Much science and experience is required to ascertain the true cause of any event, or that circumstance which is found with the fewest exceptions to precede its occurrence. [2]

[Editor’s Notes]

1. Compare Hume's History of Natural Religion and Holbach's Système de la Nature, Chapters 1‑8.

2. The thought of this paragraph comes from Hume's An Enquiry Concerning the Human Understanding. Selections, pp. 146‑175.

SOURCE: Shelley, Percy Bysshe. A Fragment of A Refutation of Deism, in: Shelley's Prose, edited by David Lee Clark (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1954), pp. 138-140.

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