[A Refutation of the Christian Religion]

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

[This fragment on the Christian religion is in Mary Shelley's Notebook of seventy‑four pages, now in the Library of Congress; inscribed on the back cover is "Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, May 16, 1814." The fragment bears no title in the manuscript; the title A Refutation of the Christian Religion is my own. In thought it shows some affinity with A Refutation of Deism, the Letter to Lord Ellenborough, and the Note in Queen Mab to the line, "I will beget a Son." The fragment may well be a note to Mary, at her request, for Shelley's opinion of the Christian religion. Indeed, the opening phrase, "At your request I shall endeavor to state . . . .” lends support to this suggestion. On the other hand it has the appearance of being a part of an intended essay on miracles. The piece was first published in Studies in Philology (45. No 3. pp. 472‑476) for July, 1948, with a brief note by F. L. Jones.]

At your request I shall endeavor to state, in the form of remarks on Leslie's short method [1] with the Deists, a few of the most obvious [arguments] [2] reasons for considering that system of opinions most erroneously called the Christian religion as false.

And first, [we ought to reflect] let us observe that this religion, although the established one of the country in which we live, is by no means the only religion in the world which lays claim to a divine origin. There are and have been an incalculable number of others; and at this day, out of the [1000 000 000] thousand million of [human] persons who form the entire population of the globe, less than a fifth part profess this system of faith, and [that] since its promulgation and diffusion, another religion, that of Mahomet, has been preached and [that] the number of its disciples greatly exceed that of the followers of Christ. If a belief in the Christian religion had been necessary to what is called the eternal welfare of men, it is scarcely to be believed that it would have been communicated to so small a portion of mankind, and after so great a lapse of years, or that, at length, having been communicated, another religion [should] might have arisen near to the birthplace of the former, attended with sufficient evidence [such as it was which] to persuade[d] the [whole] populous nations of Asia to admit its author as divine, and which prevailed in those very countries where the Christian religion had obtained the authority of the state for more than 400 years. [That] According to the theory of every religion, the universe is governed by an intelligent power infinitely benevolent and wise; had [this] a Being of this character interested itself in instructing and benefiting mankind it is probably it would have [accompanied any] devised means [mo] less inadequate to such an end than the system [called the Christian Religion] of doctrines so truly, so inefficacious, and so partial as the Christian religion. [The whole system is founded on a mistake.]

[The fundamental foundation of the whole system is weak.]

The basis of the entire system is founded on [a mistake] [3] error. If all the miracles related from the beginning of the Bible to the end had actually taken place, we should still not have approached a jot [towards] nearer the consequences attempted to be established by the advocates of Christianity. [We will] Let us suppose that the Red Sea was [divided and that dried up and] divided; [so that the water] that the Jews found an unusual quantity of quails and manna in the desert; that Joshua caused the sun to [stop] stand still—it would have been a greater miracle to have caused it to move; that the iron head of an axe floated on the Jordan; that a herd of swine were driven into a lake; that water was turned into wine; [and even that a dead man or] that extraordinary cures were performed by contact; and even that in a dead man, or a man apparently dead, the functions of life were restored—I do not see what events of this sort have in common with the prodigious superstructure attempted to be raised upon them. Certainly they exceed and contradict the accustomed lessons of experience and of consequence require more direct and unimpeachable testimony than is [required] demanded for events consistent with the order in which we have been accustomed to observe the phenomena of the universe [appear] succeed each other. But admitting that we are in possession of such evidence; that we see with our own eyes the Thames divided by the stroke of a preacher's wand; [and] that we see a dead man restored to life; water turned to wine, and pigs run violently into the sea; what follows: That the omnipotent author of the universe has entrusted the person who exhibits those singular [powers] with a [divine] special mission to [reform to] declare his will to Mankind? That he is a divine person, and that the doctrines he promulgates are necessarily true and useful? [That] No. These phenomena, like all others, prove no more than [that this person has more than] the existence of causes precisely adequate to their production. They may result from the superior insight of the operator into the laws of nature, from the knowledge of contingencies which he might convert to the profit of his pretensions, or from the creative activity of the imagination of his followers. [4] They may have been produced by a peculiar direction of [natural peculiar] natural yet inexplicable faculties analogous to what we read of animal magnetism and . . . . [5] They might have resulted from the agency of supernatural intelligences, good, bad, or indifferent, who from caprice or motives inconceivable to us, [might] may have chosen to sport with the astonishment of mortals. They might have been produced by the Devil—for it seems this personage is not understood to be idle in human affairs—in order to embarrass and annoy his adversary. [6] But it is a strange presumption to attribute them to the [direct, special] agency of the omnipotent God [God Almighty ]—unless in as much as every event is . . . . [7]

[Editor’s Notes]

1. Leslie, Charles (1650‑1722), a nonjuring English divine, whose chief work was A Short and Easy Method with the Deists (1697).

2. Shelley's cancellations in the manuscript are in brackets in this transcription.

3. Shelley made three attempts to achieve a satisfactory wording for beginning his paragraph. He first wrote: "The whole system is founded on a mistake." Next he wrote, "The fundamental foundation of the whole system is weak."

4. This idea is found in many of Shelley's essays. See especially the Note on Queen Mab to the line, "There is no God."

5. Word in manuscript illegible, probably subdemonism.

6. See the Essay on the Devil and Devils.

7. The fragment ends here.


SOURCE: Shelley, Percy Bysshe. [A Refutation of the Christian Religion] (1814?), in: Shelley's Prose, edited by David Lee Clark (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1954), pp. 141-142.


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