Religious Attitudes To Gambling
Gambling is everywhere in the United States of America at the moment. You don’t have to go too far into the past to get to a time when gambling was something that really only happened in Las Vegas, but that’s no longer the case. The arrival of sports betting in the country has, for better or for worse, turned the USA into a gambler’s paradise. Even locally in Washington State, sports betting became legal earlier on in 2020. The state is a little late to the party compared to early adopters like New Jersey, and it hasn’t quite got its sports betting platforms off the ground yet, but it’s going to happen, and once it does, it will be here to stay. We know that people of faith in the Spokane area and further afield already feel a little uneasy about that.
Should we actually be feeling uneasy, though? Do we feel like gambling is a sin because our religion says it’s a sin, or are we just assuming that it’s a sin without checking the fine print? You might be surprised to know that religious attitudes toward gambling based on scriptures vary dramatically, and you might not be committing any sins at all if you place the occasional wager. That’s because not all gambling is the same. Consider the difference between betting on sports and betting on casino games, for example. Betting on sports might be considered a game of skill, as your knowledge of the sport you’re betting on materially impacts your chances of success. The games you’ll find at online slots websites are games of chance, and so the skill element doesn’t apply. You could almost say the same about the difference between betting on a hand of cards and betting on online slots because the skill element plays a role there too, and mitigates the gamble.
If you gamble, or you’ve ever wanted to try a gambling game but are worried that it would go against your religion, we’ve put together this brief overview for you. We’re certainly not recommending that you take up gambling just because you can, but we hope it brings a little peace of mind to those who do gamble occasionally and feel guilty about it.
According to the Bible, Jesus Christ never said anything about gambling at all. He spoke out against the evils of chasing money above all other goals, and he had issues with the Roman ‘moneychangers’ who worked in the temples, but he never expressly forbade gambling. Your own individual church might have a stance on it – the United Methodist Church, as an example, is heavily against it – but that’s based on an interpretation of the text as opposed to a direct instruction. The sin from Christianity’s point of view is chasing profit and money at the expense of your neighbor, or your family, or your love of God. An obsession or an addiction to gambling would cause a problem here. Gambling as an occasional hobby would not. Based on that, Christians are fine to gamble so long as they do so for pleasure rather than greed.
Like the Bible, the Torah doesn’t offer much in the way of specific guidance on gambling. The Talmud, however, does. Within that text, rabbis discuss the principles of gambling and reach the conclusion that gambling involves the loser giving away money to the winner against their will, and therefore it can be comparable to theft. That would make it a sin. They also speak against gamblers who neglect their responsibilities at home because of their obsession with gambling. In the past, Jewish-led governments have refused to call gamblers to the stand in court cases because they weren’t considered to be reliable witnesses. Despite that, Jewish people often place wagers on small-scale gambling games – especially those involving a dreidel during Hanukkah. You’ll also sometimes see synagogues raising money through raffles. Gambling is disapproved of in Judaism – especially high-stakes gambling – but is not forbidden.
On paper, Islam’s stance on gambling couldn’t be more clear cut. It’s listed explicitly as haram, and under Shariah law, anyone caught gambling should be punished severely. The list of punishments might even include death, depending on interpretation. In practice, there are some loopholes. In the Sunan Aby Dawud, the Prophet Muhammad is quoted as saying that wagers are acceptable when they’re placed on horse racing or on ‘shooting arrows.’ That’s why Iran has a lively horse racing industry. The exemptions were granted because Muhammad believed that participating in horse racing and ‘games of arrows’ helped Muslim men develop their battle skills as warriors. That’s no longer relevant today, but the exemptions still stand. Outside of those niche interests, it’s a deadly sin and should be avoided.
When Buddhism was founded in Nepal during the 6th century, gambling was a common pastime in the country. That might have influenced Siddhartha Gautama’s thinking as he set the guidelines for the new religion. Rather than making an absolute ruling on the matter, Buddhism splits gambling into three categories; recreational gambling, habitual gambling, and addictive gambling. The first two aren’t considered to be a sin. The third is condemned, but no specific guidance on punishment is offered. On the other hand, it’s not permitted to use gambling or games of chance as a means of raising money for religious institutions. You could make a strong case for Buddhism being the world’s most tolerant religion when it comes to gambling.
Hinduism is vague on the topic of gambling because the religion doesn’t come with a core structure. Interpretations of Hinduism vary from one country to another, and so do Hindu religious laws. If a Hindu wants guidance on gambling, however, perhaps they should turn to the Mahabharata. In it, they will find the story of King Yudhisthira losing his entire Kingdom after staking it on a game of dice. There’s also the Manusmriti, which says that alcohol, gambling, womanizing, and hunting are the four worst vices that a man can have. In both cases, these are cautionary pieces of advice rather than prohibitions, and there’s no mention of gamblers deserving to be punished via earthly or unearthly means.
As you can see from the above, there’s space for gambling to a greater or lesser degree within all of the major religions. The recurring theme appears to be that it’s greed, not gambling, that constitutes a sin. So long as you’re in control of your gambling, you can find at least one way to engage with it free of religious guilt.
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