You’d be forgiven for assuming that most of the world’s religions don’t look too favourably on gambling. Not just because forgiveness is often a pretty important part of the whole religion thing, but more particularly because they really don’t.
Fortunately, in Judaism, the Tanakh or Mikra has little, if anything, in it about gambling. Casting of lots is forbidden, but this refers to divination or decision-making, not gambling. A good start? Well, Proverbs 13:11 & 23:5, and Ecclesiastes 5:10 do encourage people to avoid attempts to “get rich quick”, which presumably includes gambling.
And the Talmud (later rabbinic teachings) is more explicit. Gambling for money to the writers of the Talmud is akin to stealing. The loser, expecting (or at least hoping) to win, relinquishes money reluctantly to the winner. But also, as far as the rabbis were concerned, the gambler makes no positive contribution to society, which sounds a little harsh.
If the Old Testament (essentially the Hebrew Tanakh) gives us little to go on, is the New Testament any more damning? Well, 1 Timothy 6:10 and Hebrews 13:5 condemn the love of money, but there’s nothing about gambling specifically.
Not that this stopped a few of Christian history’s big names having a go at gambling (criticising it that is, not actually trying it). According to St Augustine, “The Devil invented gambling”, and a millennium or so later, reformer Martin Luther proclaimed, “Money won by gambling is not won without sin.” And Luther’s contemporary and fellow reformer John Calvin even got gambling outlawed in Geneva.
Much more recently, when the National Lottery began in the UK in the 1990s, the Methodist church followed its founder John Wesley’s teaching and refused to let its churches apply for any lottery funding.
As for the Catholic Church, it doesn’t see anything intrinsically wrong with gambling. A little flutter here or there, or the odd raffle or game of bingo seems perfectly acceptable. No, it’s when the stakes get too high that the Catholic Church opposes it: where it sees biblical proclamations against the pursuit of wealth and the love of money becoming more pertinent, and the dangers more significant.
Not so much ones for the old fire and brimstone nowadays, the Church of England doesn’t get too bent out of shape by it either, but opposes excessive gambling and tries to help out those with gambling problems.
As for Islam, well, here things get a little more… unambiguous. In fact, Islam sees it as one of the great sins (great as in major, rather than really good, we assume). It should be noted, though, that it is placed alongside the seemingly respectable pastime of chess.
As the Qu’ran states, among other things, gambling is “but defilement from the work of Satan, so avoid it that you may be successful. Satan only wants to cause between you animosity and hatred through intoxicants and gambling and to avert you from the remembrance of Allah and from prayer. So will you not desist?” (Qur’an 5:90,91)
And according to Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq, “Allah pardons all the sinners in the month of Ramadhan except three kinds of people; those who drink wine, those who gamble and those who harbour enmity and avarice towards a Muslim.”
So, not the best of news from the world’s fastest-growing religion – and Sikhism, too, rooted in Islam and Hinduism, is not a huge fan of the making of wagers. Gurmat teachings, the basis of Sikh code of conduct, prohibit gambling for personal gain. Sikhs are told not to participate in games of chance, but rather to earn an honest living through hard work.
Hinduism seems to be somewhat ambivalent about gambling. There is a tradition of gambling on Diwali, coming from the story of the goddess Parvati playing dice with her husband Lord Shiva, one of Hinduism’s main deities. As a result of a very pleasing win for her, she decreed that whoever gambled on Diwali would prosper in the following year.
Is Hinduism the religion for the gambler, then? Well, if one is to accept the otherworldly activities of the gods as a template for human life (this would be a mandate for polygamy, for a start)…
And besides, gambling is also explicitly prohibited in Hindu teaching: “Drinking, gambling, women [not lawfully wedded wives] and hunting, in that order, he should know to be the very worst four in the group of [vices] born of desire.” (Manu Smriti 7:50).
So, what of the consequences of gambling? A gambler will apparently say, “My wife holds me aloof, my mother hates me. The wretched man finds none to comfort him.” (Rigveda 10:34:3)
And just last year, when Vishnu was featured in an online slot machine, uproar from Hindus quickly saw the game withdrawn, forcing an apology from the German developers Gauselmann.
But just to cement the ambiguity of the whole thing, take note that it is said that whoever doesn’t gamble on Diwali will be reborn as a donkey. A sobering thought.
Buddhists – those guys are pretty laidback, aren’t they? Not so much. In the Sigalovada Sutta, the Buddha tells us:
“There are, young householder, these six evil consequences in indulging in gambling:
i – the winner begets hate
ii – the loser grieves for lost wealth
iii – loss of wealth
iv – his word is not relied upon in a court of law
v – he is despised by his friends and associates
vi – he is not sought after for matrimony; for people would say he is a gambler and is not fit to look after a wife.”
To find out exactly what Scientology thinks about gambling, we’d probably have to become Operating Thetans, and quite honestly we can’t afford it. But that tells us enough to suspect that it’s a gamble just to become a scientologist in the first place: you put up a whole lot of money in the hope of gaining returns in the future. But, on the other hand, you risk being held hostage to a billion-year contract. Or even being ‘encouraged’ to marry Tom Cruise. Pretty high stakes, then.
There’s little good news for the gambler from the world’s religions, then. While it’s tempting to see religious sorts as a load of killjoys, it might be worth considering that the thrust of what they have to say tends to be about the potential dangers of the pursuit. It’s not (necessarily) just some god up there telling us what not to do.
But is it worth heeding what they have to say? If we don’t believe any one religion harbours absolute truth, are they just outdated ideologies or the culmination of centuries of wisdom? Or perhaps something in between? The final decision is yours.
So, if we all feel suitably condemned, perhaps we should take our final, poignant piece of advice from a more contemporary religious leader, L. Ron Hubbard. Make your fortune through gambling? Oh, no: “If a man really wanted to make a million dollars, the best way to do it would be to start his own religion.”