Being A Student of Atheism

By Patrick Seamus McGhee

Patrick is an MPhil student in Early Modern History at the University of Cambridge. He is currently researching atheism and unbelief in post-Reformation England.

Cambridge’s Corpus Christi College is home to a rich and impressive collection of Reformation-era documents, named after the theologian and alumnus Matthew Parker (1504–1575). The Parker Library attests to the renewed establishment of the Protestant religion in Elizabethan England and symbolises the inextricable link between religion and education during the early modern period. However, an engraved panel in the Old Court of the College records the name of a very different student, the playwright and accused atheist Christopher Marlowe.

The engraving reflects how numerous dissenting voices echo down the corridors of our universities parallel to the religious foundations and structures upon which so much of British academia has been built. The accusations against Marlowe, who was murdered in 1593, concerned not only his own supposed exclamations of irreligion but also his influence on the opinions of others. It was claimed that he had uttered the words, ‘There is no God’ and he was accused of arguing ‘that the first beginning of religioun was only to keep men in awe’, but it was also thought that he had persuaded other dissenters, specifically Thomas Fineux and Richard Cholmeley, to fall into atheism.[1]

Refracted by the accusatorial nature of the sources to which historians have access, the nature of Marlowe’s beliefs remains difficult to discern. However, it is possible to trace the experiences of other students whose questioning and criticism of God and religion was far more explicit and vociferously self-articulated. In 1697, nearly a century after Marlowe’s death, a student at the University of Edinburgh named Thomas Aikenhead was executed after reportedly making a variety of blasphemous statements critical of scripture and expressing unbelief in idea of the Trinity.[2] The case was widely discussed in both Scottish and English writing, appearing in London newspapers among other publications.[3] In this case, the claims made by Aikenhead’s accusers can be supplemented by his own writing. In addition to a remorseful letter, Aikenhead produced a ‘swan-song’ that suggests the humility and honesty involved in the development of his unorthodox opinions.[4] Amid the idiosyncrasies of this text, Aikenhead expressed what appears to be a genuine concern for truth and admitted that his conclusions had been the consequence of profound intellectual uncertainty and struggle. This inner conflict hints at a complex relationship between orthodox religion and serious doubt during the early modern period, wherein atheism was not simply an abstract enemy but a presence within the individual believer.

In contrast to Aikenhead’s apparently troubled ambivalence towards aspects of theology and God, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s scholarly experience of atheism over a century later was one of decided defiance against institutions of religion. Shelley (1792–1822) was expelled from the University of Oxford after penning a pamphlet along with Thomas Jefferson Hogg entitled The Necessity of Atheism in 1811.[5] While a recent work of scholarship has sought to separate Shelley from the atheism of the radical Enlightenment, several areas of overlap between this intellectual movement and the emergence of Romanticism remain indicative of his capacity to radically reject theistic ideas.[6] Indeed, Shelley represents one of many writers whose thinking transcends the gulf often assumed to have necessarily existed between Enlightenment and Romantic ideas. As well as his hostility towards religious institutions, for example, Shelley shared with Thomas Paine an appreciation for the interiority of experience of the divine that could serve as an alternative to the tangible frameworks of an established church.[7] For Shelley, this involved not only the sublimity of nature but the reluctance to cooperate with physically framed manifestations of religion, such as those that underpinned university life.

What can these three cases tell us about the history of atheism? First, that while the definitions and connotations of the concept have changed over the centuries, atheism has been understood at various points across early modern history as a meaningful set of ideas rather than as an empty pejorative or a catch-all crime. Second, that the beliefs, opinions and doubts of people in the past are neither static nor secure, always reaching scholars through various obscured linguistic lenses. Finally, that serious dissent and alternative ways of thinking about religion could emerge from and were moulded by supposed centres of established orthodoxy and conformity. Particularly given the vitality of atheism and secularism in British universities today, these early modern cases should encourage us, as students of atheism, to think about the reciprocity of religion and irreligion, theism and atheism, belief and unbelief, all of which existed alongside one another and often occupied the same intellectual and physical spaces, like the names of Parker and Marlowe on the rolls of Corpus Christi.


[1] Charles Nicholl, ‘Marlowe , Christopher (bap. 1564, d. 1593)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 15 Feb 2015]; Roy Kendall, Christopher Marlowe and Richard Baines: Journeys through the Elizabethan Underground (London: Associated University Press, 2003), p. 244, pp. 332-333.

[2] Michael Hunter, ‘“Aikenhead the Atheist”: The Context and Consequences of Articulate Irreligion in the Late Seventeenth Century’, in Michael Hunter and David Wootton, Atheism From The Reformation To The Enlightenment (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), pp. 221-254, pp. 224-225, p. 227.

[3] Ibid., p. 221, p. 228.

[4] Ibid., pp. 229-232.

[5] Michael O’Neill, ‘Shelley, Percy Bysshe (1792–1822)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2009 [, accessed 16 Feb 2015].

[6] Colin Jager, ‘Shelley After Atheism’, Studies in Romanticism, 49 (2010), pp. 611-631.

[7] David Berman, A History of Atheism in Britain: From Hobbes to Russell (London: Croom Helm, 1988), pp. 135-136.

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