While much ink and air have been devoted to the “New Atheists,” a different group presents a far greater challenge. Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins care so much about religion that they have devoted much time and energy to debunk it. Their success in this endeavour is arguable, but their obsession with religion is undeniable. In fact, it seems that as much as they decry the close-mindedness of believers, they seem to have become as narrow in their thinking as they claim their targets to be.
Since the end of the eighteenth century, there have been many who challenged the truth and the efficacy of traditional religions. Most would be categorized as agnostics: those who are unsure if God exists. Given sufficient evidence, agnostics are willing to change from doubt to certainty. But until such evidence is presented, agnostics choose to suspend belief. Atheists, however, make a bolder claim. In contrast to theists who say they are sure God exists, atheists claim they are sure God does not exist. Yet the real challenge to theists comes from apatheists: those who do not care whether or not God exists.
Apatheists go through life without even thinking about whether morality is imposed from above or composed below. To the issue of God’s very existence they are sublimely indifferent. Apatheists are principally concerned with their own happiness and satisfaction with little regard to grand philosophy or theology. It is not that the issues of the immortality of the soul or life after death or the nature of sin are uninteresting. They are simply irrelevant. Apatheists might even find some religious teachings compatible with their own thinking if they happen to chance upon them. But devoting the time to intentionally exploring the possibility is not under consideration.
A teacher of mine was once confronted by an obstreperous congregant who justified his obstructionism to “apikorsus,” meaning religious rejectionism, from the Hebrew corruption of the word for the Greek philosopher Epicurus. My teacher responded that he paid himself too much of compliment. He lacked both the knowledge and the interest to be a true Apikoros. For Judaism today the threat emanates not from the educated and thoughtful atheists but from the disengaged and uncaring apatheists. These are the ones who go through the motions of religious participation when it suits them. They neither object to the practices of Judaism nor embrace them. They have no interest in changing any Jewish practice because they simply find all Jewish practice unimportant. Whether or not women are counted in the minyan, for example, is not an issue for apatheists because they would never consider attending a minyan anyway. And in the rare circumstance when they might attend – a baby-naming for instance – they are content to accept with equanimity whatever the religious practice is of the synagogue in which it is held. While both theists and atheists share a passion for what they believe or do not believe, apatheists have no passion and no beliefs. It is not that apatheists are alienated from Judaism; they simply have no strong feelings about Judaism whatsoever.
As apatheists grow in number, Judaism is increasingly imperiled. Judaism can survive intellectual attacks against it. Judaism has always overcome the attacks of the elite. Judaism cannot survive the indifference of the masses. What might be done to stem the growth of apatheism or counter the apatheistic trend has not yet been put on the table for discussion by the community or by synagogues. Yet without urgent redress, the trend threatens the very future of Judaism in North America if not beyond.