Gambling & Religion

What is the Real Relationship Between Gambling and Religion?

It’s probably something that you’ve heard your grandmother chide you for as she puts her lucky hat on and picks up her change purse to head to the weekly church Bingo sessions – “Gambling is a sin! Don’t you DARE ever do it!”. And we all know what we did next…we went out and flipped baseball cards with Jimmy or pitched pennies against the back wall of the 7-Eleven (myself? penny ante Seven Card Stud). But while Grandma’s telling her fellow bridge partners about how much she won during Bingo Night while they count up who owes whom from the game, we might have started wondering…just WHAT IS the real relationship between gambling and religion?

Is Gambling a Sin? Let’s Look at the Books…

For many in the world, the Christian Bible is the work that guides decisions and thoughts on what constitutes “right” and “wrong.” Most Christians, in fact, view the Bible as the “sacred word of God,” handed down by the Creator himself. Judaism looks at the Old Testament as their “Tanakh” which tells the story of “their people,” the Israelites. And, even though many might think that Muslims only use the Koran to derive their worship, they follow the Bible that Jews, Christians and Catholics also use as their religious base.

The Bible, however, doesn’t say one word DIRECTLY about gambling and whether it is “right” or “wrong” to gamble.

The Bible itself doesn’t have any passages that directly say that a “righteous” or “religious” person cannot gamble on sports, bet on cards or even play the lottery. In fact, it goes almost 180 degrees in the other direction, mentioning events of “chance” or “luck.” Casting lots – utilizing a drawing process, much like a raffle – is used to determine how land is allotted to the tribes of the Israelites under Joshua. There are 70 instances where “casting lots” are used in the Bible, including by the Roman soldiers who raffled off the clothing of Jesus Christ following his crucifixion. 

The Koran does take a stance on the gambling issue. The activity is closely tied with alcohol usage and both are considered violations of their religious views (“O you who believe! Intoxicants and gambling, dedication of stones and divination by arrows, are an abomination of Satan’s handwork. Eschew such abomination that you may prosper” Quran 2:219). Although there is a great love of competition in sports and other activities amongst Muslims, gambling is something that many devout members will avoid.

An interesting aspect – and one that could offer an explanation as to why there is the schism between gambling and religion – could come from Judaism. The Talmud, the book of laws of the Jewish people that dates to the fourth century, doesn’t necessarily ban gambling. It does look at it from another aspect, though – one that looks at the results of the activity. In most cases, the rabbis believed, the activity was a risky financial move and could also be addictive. Furthermore, the activity – which some think “contributes” to local economies – are a “zero sum” game because it takes from one person and puts that wealth to someone else.

Rather than having it codified in their religious texts, the religions of the world may have utilized another method to taint gambling – the Seven Deadly Sins.

The Seven Deadly Sins

Ah, yes. Those actions that have been cited by religious figures as “evil” or “sinful” can usually be coalesced into what is called by the Catholic Church the “Seven Deadly Sins.” While the tenet can also be found in Christian teachings, the Catholic Church has used the “Seven Deadly Sins” – Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride – as a benchmark of their instructions. It is thought that, through pushing these as “deadly sins,” that it would otherwise curb the impulses of their congregations from committing acts of “evil.”

Gambling is one of those areas where the “Seven Deadly Sins” can arguably be found in full bloom. In examining each of those areas, gambling and the pursuit of money – the “love” of money, supposedly the “root of all evil” – can be found. From yearning to have more of it in your pocket (lust) to the simple “greed” of getting it, gambling is a tool that can break each of the “Seven Deadly Sins.”

Sloth? How often have you sat at the poker table next to someone whom…let’s be kind here… hasn’t taken care of themselves? Pride? Being boastful about your abilities, to the point where you cannot identify that you’re perhaps not that good? And what about going “on tilt?” What better example of “Wrath” can there be? The fact that gambling is directly evident in the “Seven Deadly Sins” is the factor that makes the world’s religions look at it in an unfavorable light.

Why Is Gambling Forbidden in Some Religions and Not in Others? What Do They Say?

Unfortunately, it is difficult to get leaders of the major religions – Catholicism, Christianity, Islam or Judaism – to discuss issues like this. Perhaps it is a discussion that is best had in person as it can be very nuanced and the repartee would allow for a true discussion. In reaching out to a rabbi on the subject, he had an opinion but couldn’t get it into a quick reply. But one religious leader did respond for us on the subject, with some interesting viewpoints.

Bilal Saleh of the Islamic Society of New Tampa was one member of the religious community who responded about gambling and religion. As we’ve previously stated, the Koran does directly have a statement that gambling is a sin, but Saleh was able to give a bit of background on the subject.

According to Saleh, Islam has a problem with gambling because of how the money is earned.

“Making wealth in Islam is based on positive effort, on the fair exchange of benefits – receiving something in return for the exchange of money – and on the productivity of those involved,” Saleh commented. “In Islam, we are also not allowed to make wealth through harming others or other things, which can be found in gambling.”

“Using money to gamble does not achieve a fair exchange of benefits,” Saleh continued. “Instead, it is achieved as a result of harming someone else.” Speaking directly about gambling, Saleh said, “Gambling along with all kinds of usury is considered as one of the main reasons for economic injustice and unfair distribution of wealth, which leads to the creation of classes and unfair concentration of wealth.”

But what about those religions which use gambling – remember Grandma’s Bingo Night at the church? – to make money for their religious outreach and efforts. Saleh was quick to point out that he couldn’t speak for other faiths (“we do not have the answers for other faiths”), but he clearly stated that Islam did not participate in this arena.

“That is not a legitimate way for fundraising in Islam,” Saleh stated. “(Other religions may do it) because they anticipate that the benefit of raising funds for doing good is much greater than the harm of gambling for their followers.”

In Closing....

While religion has consistently railed against the evils of gambling, they often have contradicted themselves when it comes to the actual activity. The Puritans, the people who came to the “New World” on the Mayflower, used lotteries to fund some of the premiere academic institutions in the States of America (Yale, Harvard and Princeton didn’t always have those huge endowments) and dice, horse racing and cards were all prevalent in the supposedly “God-fearing” people. The Stamp Act, passed by the British Parliament prior to the Revolutionary War (and one of its causes), included a clause that taxed every deck of cards that was sold in the Colonies.

Over the passing 250 years or so, there have been ebbs and flows in the battle between gambling and religion. While there might be some substantive reasons for religion to consider gambling an “evil,” some of them then contradict themselves when the offer that very same activity under the auspices of “raising money” for their causes. The bottom line is that, even looking back to before the birth of Christ, religion has been on one side of the spectrum and gambling on the other – and there is little that is going to change that fact.