Coleridge and Atheism in the 1790s


Michael Murphy


[From The Coleridge Bulletin New Series No 11, Spring 1998, pp.48-60]


It is on record that Coleridge was flogged at school for his sceptical reading habits. (1) He apparently admitted to being an infidel. At Cambridge, however, he is keen to demonstrate that this brief period of infidelity is over. A letter to his brother George (7 April 1794) explains that the nature of his ‘religious creed’ had pivoted on the dilemma between Christianity and infidelity: “I had too much Vanity to be altogether a Christian—too much tenderness of Nature to be utterly an Infidel” (CL 1:44). The “pleasure” that Coleridge gained from reading Voltaire and Helvetius is apparently overcome by “the beauty of Holiness in the Gospel.”

The letter to his brother George is written at a time when Coleridge is repenting for his misspent youth. An earlier letter (23 February 1794) lists some of the causes of his penitence: his “Tutor’s Bill”, a shameful Cowardice of sensibility”, “idleness”, “Debauchery”, “the uproar of senseless Mirth”, and of seizing “the empty gratifications of the moment.” (CL 1:36). The ‘George’ letters of the period seem to contain a genuine sense of remorse. Coleridge is trying to reassure his brother of his new efforts to “cultivate such habits of thinking and acting” that will lead to a more orthodox Christian way of life (CL 1:44). It could be that at this moment of great self-reprobation, Coleridge felt that his fascination with sceptical and heterodox systems had ceased. These interests, however, were not to be so easily displaced.




McFarland has explained that Coleridge had an enduring repulsion and attraction for pantheism. (2) The attraction to “one life” philosophy that he shared with Wordsworth and Thelwall is apparent in Coleridge’s poetry:

But ‘tis God/diffused through all, that doth make one whole
(Religious Musings, 1794-1796)

One intellectual breeze/At once the Soul of each, and God of all
(The Eolian Harp, 1795)

Infinite myriads of self-conscious minds
Are one all-conscious Spirit
(Destiny of Nations, 1796)

Himself in all, and all things in himself
(Frost at Midnight, 1798)

The Mighty One that persecuteth me is on this side and on that; he pursueth my soul like the wind, like the sand-blast he passeth through me; he is around even as the air!
(The Wanderings of Caine, 1798)

Flirting with pantheist or materialist systems carried historical dangers of association with atheism. This is apparent in the work of one of Coleridge’s sonnet heroes (1794), the prominent Unitarian, Joseph Priestley. In Disquisitions relating to Matter and Spirit (1777) Priestley explained how his “hypothesis” on “the Materiality of the divine nature” led to charges of atheism. By asserting that “the Deity” was not made of “an immaterial substance”, but consisted of matter




 like man and the universe, Priestley was accused of denying the existence of God. (3)

Coleridge became alert to the possible atheistic dimension of Priestley’s system. A note book entry dated 1796-7 suggests that Coleridge was beginning to see a necessary connection between Unitarianism and Atheism: “Unitarianism/travelling from orthodoxy to Atheism—why” (NB 1: 80, G74). He responded by joining the historical attack against Priestley. In a letter (20 March 1796) to the Reverend John Edwards, Coleridge maintains that Priestley’s system is equal to atheism: “But if God be every Thing, every Thing is God—: which is all, the Atheists assert” (CL 1:112). Coleridge was dissatisfied with Priestley’s system for not making God distinct as an intelligent first cause in the universe. It is the same objection that he makes against the materialist systems in the Bristol lectures (1795) which I examine later in this paper.

Coleridge’s syncretic approach to religious and philosophic systems demonstrate his explorative nature. McFarland explains that Coleridge’s “persistent endeavour was to make a place for all facts and view points, however varied.” (4) His interests in Hartley, Priestley, Godwin, Spinoza and Berkeley (to list some) set him in opposition to orthodox Christianity. He selected and rejected ideas as he saw fit. This is apparent in his relationship with Godwin. The Bristol lectures demonstrate that Coleridge incorporated many of Godwin’s ideas but emphatically contested his atheism. Andrews called the incorporation of these ideas “Godwinism plus God.” (5)




Coleridge’s incorporation of different systems presented a challenge to orthodox Christianity, but consistently fell short of embracing atheism. The “mitred Atheism” of the Religious Musings was invested with “daemon power” and was seen to embody “all evil things.” The “owlet Atheism” in Fears in Solitude is obscured from the “glorious vision of “heaven.” In a notebook entry dated 1795-6 we learn that Coleridge is planning to compose a hymn as a means of “a dissection of Atheism” (NB 1: 174, G.169, 16). This “dissection” materialises in the Lectures on Politics and Religion (LPR 92-164).

Six months after the penitent letter to his brother George (CL 1:44), Mary Evans shows concern that Coleridge may have become an atheist. A letter October 1794 explains: “There is a God—Coleridge! Though I have been told (indeed I do not believe it) that you doubt of his existence and disbelieve a hereafter.” The letter is a response to rumours. It addresses two fundamental concerns: 1) that Coleridge is about to enter into a pantisocratic scheme; 2) that he has ceased to believe in God.

On both accounts Coleridge is given the benefit of the doubt by Mary Evans. On the pantisocratic issue it is claimed: “Were I for a moment to imagine it true, I should be obliged to listen with a more patient Ear to suggestions, which I have rejected a thousand times with scorn and anger.” On the question of Coleridge’s atheism, her own fears are answered positively: “No! You have too much sensibility to be an Infidel.” (6) “Sensibility” in this letter alludes to Coleridge’s mental responsiveness, his power of reason. This is set in opposition to the “rash”, “extravagant”, and “extreme” characteristics of the “infidel.” Thus Mary Evans laments the day when she might be “forced to exclaim” that Coleridge’s “noble mind is here




o’erthrown, Blasted with ecstacy.” Mary Evans wants to think the best of the man she “once loved.” She thus dismisses rumours that are partly true. Coleridge was involved in a pantisocratic plan, but was certainly no atheist.

Certain historical factors have a bearing on why Coleridge might have been incorrectly judged as an atheist. There was a tendency in conservative opinion to make the link between the reform movement at home and the Jacobinic atheism of revolutionary France. (7) Thus Coleridge’s Unitarian, democratic, and pantisocratic beliefs implicate him notionally with atheism. He supported the repeal of the Test/Corporation acts, opposed the war with France, and was committed to the principles of “aspheterizism” (“the equalisation of property” - CL 1: 50, 1794).

Coleridge also gave support at the trial of William Frend, a well known Unitarian reformer at Cambridge. In doing so, he aligned himself with the side of rational dissenters who were being categorised as atheists. (8) In his Account of the Proceedings Frend says that he had been called a “heretick, deist, infidel” and “atheist”. (9) He went on to explain that his expulsion from Cambridge had been prejudiced by a court deliberation “that breathed nothing but atheism




and anarchy.” (10) The Vice Chancellor of the University, Isaac Milner, supported Frend’s expulsion. He saw it as “the ruin of the Jacobin party as a university thing.” (11)

Coleridge was implicated in what James Mackintosh called the “savage war-whoop of atheism”: (12) the tendency to treat all dissenters as irreligionists. It is understandable that Mary Evans (and indeed others) might have mistaken Coleridge’s involvement to entail a notion of atheism. He kept her informed of his political tastes at Cambridge. He gave her an indication that he was supporting the opposition against Pitt. A letter dated 7 February explains: “Have you read Mr. Fox’s letter to the Westminster Electors? . . . It is quite the political Go at Cambridge, and has converted many souls to the Foxite Faith” (CL 1: 151). The pamphlet dealt with the idea that the Government should negotiate peace with France to “avert the calamities of war.” (13)
     It is not until a year after he leaves Cambridge that Coleridge’s position on atheism becomes clear. The Lectures on Politics and Religion (1795) extricate him from the early rumours. They supply a substantial discourse on atheists and atheism which we shall now examine.




On the 15th May 1795, Coleridge borrowed Cudworth’s True Intellectual System (1743) from the Bristol Library. (14) Some days later (probably 19 May) he incorporates the work into his Lecture 1. Coleridge refers to the two ancient systems of atheism mentioned by Cudworth: (15) the “atomical” and “hylozoic” systems of Democritus and Strato. Coleridge maintained that it was the legacy of the atomistic and hylozoic systems that caused contemporary atheists “to exclude our God and Untenant the Universe” (LPR 100). The atomic system views all life as accidental and corruptible with no intelligent principle to guide affairs. (16) The hylozoic system maintains an incorruptible “plastic nature” which gives matter an inner directive principle without consciousness or intelligence. (17)

Like Cudworth, Coleridge sets out to contest both systems. Coleridge starts with the atomistic theory. He disputes the idea that the “accidental play of Atoms” could bring about “the ineffable Beauty of Things from a lucky hit in the Blind Uproar” (LPR98). Here Coleridge calls upon Maclaurin’s Account of Sir Isaac Newton (1748). (18) The “ineffable Beauty” and “Blind Uproar” are terms that Maclaurin uses to present a design argument in favour of a deity. (19) It is this position that Coleridge follows earlier in the lecture (LPR 93):




“The universe seems to make the belief of a Deity almost an Axiom.” (20) Coleridge finds it inconceivable that the “accidental play of atoms” could create such “a polished and accurate Watch or Timepiece” as the universe (LPR 98). (21) He claims that the absurdity of this notion caused the hylozoic atheists to bring in “plastic natures” to account for the organisation of atomic structure: (22)

Of this Absurdity later Atheists have been ashamed, and have therefore substituted certain plastic Natures as inherent in each particle of Matter—certain inconceivable Essences that are, as it were, the unthinking Souls of each atom! But how these Unthinking Essences came to agree among each other so as by their different & opposite operations to form one Whole is a Mystery into which the pious Disciples of Atheism deem it irreverent to inquire. (LPR 98-9).

The plastic nature of the hylozoic systems gives matter a self-active power or inherent ability to organise itself. (23) The universe then requires no deity in order to function. It is the lack of an intelligent principle that Coleridge takes particularly to task. He does not accept that elementary particles of matter can act independently of a higher intelligent force. He thus describes these particles in incongruous terms: they become “blind almighties”, or “Ignorant Omniscients” (LPR 98-100).




In Lecture 1, atheism is largely disputed on intellectual grounds. The atomistic and hylozoic systems are seen to “have demonstrated the limited nature of human intellect” (LPR 97). They fail to recognise the intelligent force of God at work in nature.

In Lecture 3, Coleridge gives some reasons for this deficiency in atheistic thinking. He sets out to demonstrate that the atheistic state of mind is caused by amoral activity. Sensual pleasure is seen to play a fundamental role in weakening the intellect:

But the unhappy man who has imbibed the detested System of Atheism in his Childhood or Youth, him pity him avoid. All the predisposing causes of Virtue are taken from him—nothing remains that can enlargen or soften. The intellectual Pleasures which substitute a efined Luxury of Feelings for the grossness of bodily Appetite, the emotions of heaven-directed Gratitude, the cheerings of death-deriding Hope, are all vanished. (LPR 157-8).

Coleridge seems to incorporate two main sources here. The first is Hartley’s Observations of Man (1749). Coleridge follows Hartley in the idea that “gross” sensual pleasures have involuntary results on the intellect. (24) Hartley claims that “sensible pleasures are the Foundation of the intellectual ones, which are formed from them in Succession, according to the law of association.” (25) The idea is that “sensible pleasures” create lasting impressions on the mind. These impressions can be reactivated through the association of ideas. Thus unwholesome bodily pursuits have unwholesome results on the




thinking process. (26) To demonstrate this point, Coleridge uses Epicurus as an example. A moral system based on “the principle of gross self-interest” is seen to lead to the false idea “that the World was formed by the blind Play of Atoms” (LPR 157).

Much of what Coleridge says about the atheistic tendency to gratify the sensual appetite (LPR158) is found in Cudworth’s True Intellectual System (1743). Cudworth claims that “appetite and Passion”, an “interest in carnality” and “sottishness”, all contribute to bias the mind against truth. Thus it is a lack of morality “which inclines men to atheize.” (27)

Coleridge also takes issue with atheists for denying the existence of benevolence in the universe (LPR 158). Coleridge turns his attention to the anti-familial ideas of Godwin. Godwin denied the idea that domestic affections were fundamental to the creation of benevolence. He preferred a rational appraisal of familial relations: “I ought to prefer no human to another, because that being is my father, my wife or my son, but because, for reasons which equally appeal to all understandings.” (28)

In contrast to Godwin, Coleridge insists that “the most expansive benevolence is that effected and rendered permanent by social and domestic affections” (LPR 162). Coleridge follows Hartley in the idea that benevolent feelings are first developed by association within the family. This benevolence then extends to society and more widely to the rest of humanity. (29)




Coleridge explains that the nurturing process may deliver a child from “gross self-interest” to “pure benevolence” (LPR 113-9). (30) Thus he has sympathy for anyone who is born and socialised in an atheistic environment: “But an Atheist among Atheists and born of an Atheist is truly an object of our pity” (LPR 339). Such a person, however, is not a lost cause. If removed from the associative environment that causes atheism, moral progress can be made. “Atheists” are “benefited by example”; if “educated within the sphere of religious Influence” and “secluded from Temptation” they can be much improved (LPR 339).

Coleridge maintains that there is potential for moral development in the human condition. A letter (17 December 1796) to the atheist John Thelwall explains: “Christianity regards morality as a process—it finds a man vicious and unsusceptable of noble motives; & gradually leads him, at least, desires to lead him, to the height of disinterested Virtue” (CL 1: 164). The idea of morality as a “process” seems to play a fundamental part in Coleridge’s relationship with Thelwall. Whilst Coleridge contests the system of atheism, he looks for the redeeming features in the individual atheist. This is apparent when Coleridge identifies certain characteristics in Thelwall that correspond to the Christian ideal of universal benevolence:

I really love you, and can count but a few human beings, whose hand I would welcome with a more hearty Grasp of Friendship . . . I must be blind not to Perceive that you present in your daily & hourly practice the Feelings of Universal Love . . . You possess fortitude, and Purity, & a Large portion of brotherly - kindness & universal Love (CL 164).



The fact that they “hold different creeds” with regard to “religion” (CL 1: 156, 1796) does not stop Coleridge befriending Thelwall. Coleridge would like to see “a progression in Thelwall’s “moral character” (CL 1:164). The potential for this progression is duly recognised in the characteristics of “brotherly-kindness & universal love” (CL 1: 164). Thelwall then, is judged on his virtue, not on his belief in the system of atheism. He is seen to possess the qualities that would otherwise make him a good Christian.

Coleridge objects to certain qualities that are seen to be intrinsically linked to the system of atheism: intellectual malfunction, immorality, and a lack of universal benevolence. These objections are mostly expressed in dispassionate and intellectual terms. In other words, Coleridge uses rational criteria to explain the flaws of atheism. Coleridge’s rejection of atheism (and scepticism in general), however, is also seen to come about through his emotive attraction to Christianity. He articulates this emotional response in terms of the ‘heart’ gaining victory over the ‘head.’ The letter (7 April 1794) to his brother George explains:

Fond of the dazzle of Wit, fond of subtlety of Argument, I could not read without some degree of pleasure the levities of Voltaire, or the reasonings of Helvetius—but tremblingly alive to the feelings of humanity, and su[s]ceptible of the charms of Truth my Heart forced me to admire the beauty of Holiness in the Gospel. (CL 1:44)

Christianity is expressed as a heartfelt truth. It triumphs over his speculative interests (Voltaire and Helvetius). This is apparent much later in the Biographia Literaria (1817). When talking of his radical years, Coleridge claims: “My head was with Spinoza, though my whole heart remained with Paul and John” (BL 1.134).

The Lectures on Politics and Religion (1795) contain Coleridge’s first sustained challenge to atheism. They dispel the type of doubts that Mary Evans raised with regard to Coleridge being an




atheist at Cambridge. While he was emphatically opposed to the system of atheism, Coleridge befriended and related to many atheists in his life (Thelwall, Godwin, Holcroft). He looked for the characteristics in people that corresponded to his own Christian ideals. If men had potential for good, then Coleridge felt that this could be developed into the eventual belief in God. He thus never seemed to tire in his efforts to Christianise his fellow brethren.

Michael Murphy.


1. See Table Talk (London, 1990) p84; Colmer, J., Coleridge, Critic of society (Oxford, 1959) p2; Hanson, L., The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (London, 1938); Gillman, J., The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (London, 1838) p17-18, 33.
2. McFarland, T., Coleridge and The Pantheist Tradition (Oxford, 1969) p9.
3. Priestley, J., Disquisitions Relating to Matter and Spirit (London, 1777) p103-153.
4. Ibid, p98.
5. The Godwinian ideas in the Bristol lectures: “That property was the source of inequality and injustice; that government was the cause of more evil than good; that vice was the result of social circumstances; that the required revolution would be bloodless and non-violent, and would take the form of the intellectual and moral conversion of the masses.” See Andrews, S., in The Coleridge Bulletin, Spring (Somerset, 1996) p22.
6. The terms ‘infidel’ and ‘atheist’ were often used synonymously in the eighteenth century. Coleridge tended to be more specific in his usage of the terms. He uses ‘infidel’ to refer to scriptural sceptics like Paine, and ‘atheist’ to those who deny the existence of God.
7. See Schofield, T., ‘Conservative Political Thought in Britain in Response to the French Revolution’ in The Historical Journal, vol 29 (Cambridge, 1986) p602-5; Claeys, G., ‘The French Revolution Debate and British Political Thought’ in History of Political Thought, vol 11 (Glasgow, 1990) p59-80; Thompson, E,P., ‘Hunting The Jacobin Fox’ in A Journal of Historical Studies, numbers 142-5 (Oxford, 1994) p94-140; Mitchell, A., ‘The Association Movement of 1792-3’ in The Historical Journal, vol 4 (Cambridge, 1961) p56-77.
8. Roe, N., Wordsworth and Coleridge, The Radical Years (London, 1988) p92-3; Henriques, U., Religious Toleration in England 1787-1833 (London, 1961) p125.
9. Frend, W., An Account of the Proceedings in the University of Cambridge against William Frend (Cambridge, 1793) p89.
10. Ibid, p181-2
11. Gunning, H., Reminiscences of the University, Town and Country of Cambridge, from the year 1780 vol 2 (London, 1854) 1. 283.
12. Mackintosh, J., Vindiciae Gallicae, Defence of the French Revolution and Its English Admirers 1780, against Accusations of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke (1791).
13. See The Speech of the Right Hon. Charles James Fox . . . at the opening of Parliament, December 13, 1792, 5th ed. B.M. 8135. b. in Colmer, J., Coleridge, Critic of Society (Oxford, 1959) p2.
14. Cudworth (1617-88) was the foremost Cambridge Platonist. The first edition of The True Intellectual System was in 1678. Coleridge borrowed the 1743 edition. See Whalley, G., The Bristol Library Borrowings of Southey and Coleridge, 1793-8, The Library, 5th series (1949) p120.
15. Ibid, p104-5.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid.
18. Coleridge borrowed Maclaurin the day before Lecture 1 (18 May 1795). See Whalley, Ibid, p121.
19. Maclaurin, C., An Account of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophical Discoveries (1748) (reprint, London, 1968) p4.
20. Ibid, p381.
21. Patton and Mann explain that although Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) “gave the watch/universe analogy its widest currency . . . it appears in many works within the sphere of C’s early reading from Cicero (De natura deorum 2.34) to Thomas Burnett and Priestley.” See Lectures on Politics and Religion (London, 1971) p98, n4.
22. Here Coleridge follows Cudworth, Ibid, p109, 144.
23. Ibid, p105.
24. Hartley, D., Observations of Man, His Frame, His Duty, and His Expectations (1749), vol 1 (Hildesheim, 1967) p82, 416.
25. Ibid, p213.
26. Ibid, vol 2, p211.
27. Cudworth, Ibid, p12, 104, 134.
28. Godwin, W., An Enquiry concerning Political Justice and its influence on general virtue and happiness, 2 vols (London, 1793) p852.
29. Compare Coleridge’s Lectures (1795), Ibid, p46, 48,133-4, 162, 164, with Hartley, Ibid, vol 1, p14-15, 216-7; vol 2, p271-282, 291-304.
30. Ibid, vol 1, p494.


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