Towards the end of the parsha, the series of halachos that is the hallmark of much of Sefer Vayikra is interrupted by one of the rare “narratives” in the sefer: the “son of the Egyptian woman” who “curses” G-d and is executed. In fact, there are only two “narratives”: the other is in Shemini, the events of the hakamas hamishkan and the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.
Obviously there is a world of difference between behaviors and intentions and how the Torah and the relevant literature view the actions of Nadav and Avihu on the one hand and the megadef on the other; however, one may find a common thread between the two: the lethal effect of certain inappropriate approaches to G-d. Which, in the context of the plethora of the levitical and priestly in Sefer Vayikra, much of which is dedicated to instructions regarding service to G-d in very close quarters.
While there is little logical underpinning added to explain blasphemy in the halachic literature, there ironically is significant “svara” added to the three cardinal sins, INCLUDING avoda zara, [cf Sanhedrin 74a]—why the difference bet the two? The real svara behind the status of AZ as yehareg ve’al ya’avor is not negative, but positive—the commandment [V’ahavta], rather than any of the negative admonitions against idolatry, which are certainly not scarce in the Torah.
A closer look at the nature of both “birkas Hashem” [the standard Talmudic euphemism for blasphemy] and the “mesis” might serve to illuminate why the Torah might be relatively silent on a third offense—atheism—and why it might actually be of both a different degree and kind than the previous two offenses.
Look at the language of the actual curse that’s supposed to actually incur stoning: “Yakeh Yosi es Yosi”—the blasphemer is invoking the name of G-d Himself to curse G-d. In a similar sense, the Talmudic discussion surrounding which of G-d’s names used to curse one’s parents is indicative of what might be the ultimate reason behind the gravity of these offenses: the perpertrators are, in a certain sense, using G-d as a force for evil in the world, and in the sense of the megadef, almost pointing to the Divine as the source of evil in the world while simultaneously employing the concept. That idea itself might be what elevates the gravity of the offense of megadef beyond that of avoda zara.
Now, examine the nature of mesis [seducer to idolatry], whose gravity mandates that the Jewish legal entrap the violator into a guilty verdict: the description of the “attempted seduction” involves a detailed description of the idol[s] to be served, and the final “nail in the coffin” as it were of the seducer’s declaration that “We must do this; this is good for us [Kach hi chovasenu, kach hi yafeh lanu]”. If said mesis were, however, to employ language of kfira b’ikar that involved no other divinity, or the denial of the existence of one, it isn’t clear—to say the least—that this kind of hasasa/"seduction" would merit the same response.
It’s one thing, then to see atheism as a possibly less offensive notion than avoda zara, no matter what the type [even if it involved “shutfus”, service of the real G-d—which ipso facto acknowledges his existence—in combination with other not-real deities].
But Rav Kook may even take that a step further:
“Atheism (heresy) comes as a cry from the depths of pain to redeem man from narrow and alien straights—to raise him up from the darkness of the letters and aphorisms to the light of ideas and feelings until faith finds a place to stand in the center of morality. Atheism has the right of temporary existence because it is needed to digest the filth adhered to faith for the lack of intellect and service.” (Orot 126)
Rav Hillel Rachmani [Gush] elaborates:
Rav Kook sees the phenomenon of atheism as originating from two extreme views of God: God is other and thus threatening, therefore I must escape from Him; God is nature and hence irrelevant to my life…R. Kook recognizes heresy as a tool which can help believers purify and refine their faith. The challenge of heresy shatters inaccurate or undesirable models of God, and this can enable the religious community to progress to a fuller and more truthful understanding of God. Atheism cannot deny God's existence per se; it is unable to fight against God Himself. Rather it acts to destroy Man's representations of God.
This would seem to obviate the idea that there is no such thing as a “moral atheism”; in fact, Gertrude Himmelfarb writes [Victorian Minds, Ch 11: "The Victorian Angst"] that Victorian eminences were private atheists or agnostics but almost because of that were philosophically “machmir” morally: "Atheistic--or agnostic, rationalistic, or theistic--morality was still more demanding...for here there was neither an objective ritual of atonement nor an objective measure of sin." The medrash beat the Victorians to it long before, however: the Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 15 gives at least a smidgen of credence to this idea, with “lulei osi azvu v’torasi shamaru”: better that they abandon Me but keep My Torah, because it will bring them back to me. While the ultimate basis of all ethics is Divine, acting as if one and one’s behaviors are ipso-facto ethical because one harbors “correct” beliefs is anything but.
The real issue here is not whether Judaism condones atheism over polytheism; obviously it finds both anathema. However, it again raises the question over with whom we should or should not ally ourselves—politically and /or socially—and why. Irrespective of the current world zeitgeist that is definitely hostile to any moral discipline—especially one that has its belief system rooted in revelatory bases—the representatives of the major monotheistic strains have not done very much to counter the idea that religion and faith is a force for good on the world. The real scandals and hypocrisies are too numerous to measure here.
I think that allying ourselves with other religious denominations because we need them to help shore up our faith from the attacks on all faiths is counterproductive. We need to consider the possibility that a more secular society is not ultimately more detrimental to the true nature of the Judaic mission than one that outwardly acknowledges a Divine but doesn’t know—or doesn’t want to know—what that entails.