Atheists often like to make their rejection of God analogous to a monotheist’s rejection of multiple gods. The argument proceeds to claim that an atheist simply rejects one more deity than monotheists, and as such the two sides are not so different because both engage in a similar denial of claims. This then supposedly opens the door to a discussion about why a particular conception of God is privileged at all, why not believe in some other God or gods?
From a monotheist’s perspective, this line of thinking is a little odd because it can only come from someone that has not sufficiently recognized the value of monotheism to begin with. It is odd, because that is the whole thesis of all three Abrahamic faiths. One would think that an atheist would be familiar with such a viewpoint, but in actuality it says more about the lack of scholarship with regards to the discourse on religion.
There are certain rational reasons to believe in one singular God over multiple gods. Ideas of primordial causation, omnipotence, being the First and the Last and so on. Additionally, there is the practical reason to be a monotheist. Consider that the right of worship and right of reverence are essential inherent qualities to the concept of deity. When a polytheist approaches his worship, he is presented with the decision of to which god he will direct his prayers. If you start considering a ranking of deities, then you enter the discussion of which deity has powers in which circumstance, which is superior over others, and so on. In the end, all religions believe in a supreme deity, even the most polytheistic ones. So from a practical perspective, one might as well worship the God of gods if one is forced to decide.
However, people believe different things about this supreme God. Sometimes they believe He is not the best one to pray to in some cases. Sometimes He is too far removed from the day-to-day of mankind to be an effective object of worship. This is where Islam in particular emphasizes the capabilities of Allah, His ability to hear, to see, and to cause outcomes in reality.
The question that we should be asking, therefore, is: who is God? This question dives into the heart of any religion, uncovering the most basic form of theology that is identified to that particular religion. The God of Christianity is subtly different than the God of Judaism, and so on. In the end, ask yourself, what concept of God is most worthy of our acceptance and faith? Is there a religion with the best concept of God imaginable?
To begin the discussion, we must understand that the concept of God is a relational one. Meaning, we understand God from the perspective of one of his subordinates and part of His creation. God Himself is defined as the Creator of all. Whether it is mankind, the Earth, plants, animals, the universe, time itself, everything that is not God is a creation of His. Thus we learn to recognize the most binary dichotomy of existence: Creator, and creation.
As a dichotomy, we must learn the characteristics define and separate these two groups. Why is God not creation? Well, by our own definition, God makes creation and creation cannot make God. The two groups are not equal in status. Creation depends entirely on the Creator to create it. A telltale feature of creation is this type of existential dependence. To contrast, God is the only being that is perfectly self-sufficient. An animal depends on nutrition to exist, so it cannot be God. Likewise, the sun depends on its limited nuclear fission, so it cannot be God. The universe can’t be God either because it depends on the Big Bang to start existing. If something has a beginning, then it depends on external factors for its own existence.
What does all this tell us? To put it simply, it tells us what God is and what God isn’t. God is entirely independent of anything, period. He is free from all necessities, because his existence doesn’t depend on anything such as food or causes. As the only perfectly independent agent in existence, everything else, every cause and effect, eventually leads back to Him. In order for our existence to make sense, there needs to be an agent that starts it all: a Presence that literally exists outside the limitations of time and space and dimension. This Presence is the one that starts the chain of events leading up to the present situation of everything. Everything eventually gets traced back to Him.
This is what is meant by the term “God is the First and the Last.” He is the First Cause, and He is exists forever, unbound to the limitations of time. This is very hard to fully comprehend. After all, we humans cannot picture what we have never seen before. We can’t imagine a totally new color, let alone a Being that exists outside time.
God may be thought of as this “prime mover” and ultimate cause of everything, but people may raise the question why is such an object conscious? Why think of God as a personal being? Why can’t it be a material mechanism?
As I said earlier, we cannot forget where we stand as observers. We are beings of consciousness, of experience and choice. A God that does not think, does not choose or have agency is a god that is inferior to us. I can thus understand the intellectual impetus for this possibility, because it ultimately puts mankind at the top of the food chain. But it makes for a pretty poor deity and robs us of an entity that is worthy of worship. In fact, it robs existence itself of purpose and intent. It leaves the order and rationality of the creation totally unexplained, because if God is a machine, then we have no explanation for why existence was produced the way it was. We also have no explanation for the phenomena of human agency, and how such a thing can come from something that lacks the capability to control it.
More likely, God understands human agency just like any other creator understands something they created. Can a computer fully comprehend the human mind that created it? It can never do so because that is outside its capacity. The human would have to program something into the computer in order for it to even recognize the human as its creator. However, the computer scientist totally understands the inner functions and mechanisms of the computer. Likewise, we humans are creations of God. We cannot fully comprehend the scope of God, but we can at least recognize our Creator because God included that program in us. The fact that our brains are wired to promote belief in God is simply proof of this. God fully understands the complexities of human biology, human consciousness, human emotions, and human intellect. The fact that we can even draw worldly parallels and understand them is also because of God’s foresight in His creation. God knows us, and since we are personal beings it makes sense God is personal to us.
Consequently, recognizing the agency of God also recognizes His ability to exact justice. We as humans have an internal sense of justice embedded into our very fiber. Similar to how our intellect points us to God, our sense of morality points us to God as well. We believe that we shouldn’t harm others because we wouldn’t like to be harmed ourselves. Why does this matter in a materialistic world? Because God makes us accountable for our actions eventually. We have a sense of justice, but at the same time our thinking can be corrupted, manipulated and misguided. So if we can’t trust ourselves fully when it comes to distinguishing right from wrong, where do we look towards for justice? Just like how every event gets traced back to God, morality is also traced back to God.
These are just a few examples of why monotheism helps explain reality in way that makes sense to us as humans. Now, people often parody the concept of God as an old white man with a flowing beard, echoing the images of Ancient Greek and Roman polytheism. While certainly an image often associated with wisdom, it is in fact an insult to the concept of God that brings Him down to the level of creation, of physical material form requiring biology and laws of nature to exist. When you start using such imagery, it becomes easy to make polytheism and monotheism seem equivalent. It makes it easy for atheists to come and say they simply reject another patently improbable ancient fairy tale.