Theology Thursdays: Gambling And Religion by Reuven Brenner and Gabrielle Brenner

Until the 18th century, most attacks on gambling in the Western world were rooted in religious condemnations.

Whereas from the tone of moral authorities through the ages one would infer that the Bible condemns the use of lots and the dice, a closer reading shows that lot casting was a chosen means of communication between God and man. The priests, who had the monopoly power on casting lots, defended the practice. They condemned the use of lots for acts in which their advice was not being sought, games where money was at stake in particular.

In Exodus 28:30, the High Priest Aaron is ordered to wear lots when going before the Lord: "And in the breastpiece of judgment you shall put the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be upon Aaron's heart, when he goes in before the Lord; thus Aaron shall bear the judgment of the people of Israel upon his heart before the Lord continually." Joshua too was ordered to ask for divine advice "by the judgment of the Urim before the Lord" (Leviticus 27:20-21). Saul, when looking for the one who had disobeyed his order of fasting before the battle, looks for an answer by using the Urim and Thummim (I Samuel 14:41).

Although nobody knows exactly what the Urim and Thummim were, one accepted interpretation is that they were two dice, one used for a positive answer and the other for a negative one. But only members of religious hierarchy were assumed to use them, and only on questions of public concern, like finding the guilty party of a crime, choosing a king or a priest, determining God's will before undertaking a war or battle, and other such weighty decisions decisions.

Lot casting was used in pre-Islamic Arabia too, to determine guilt. The Qur'an refers to the use of lots (sahama) in the case of Yunus (Jonah) who lost and was thrown in the sea (3:44/39), but it still condemns gambling in these word: "O believers! Wine, maysir, sacrificial stones, and divining arrows are an abomination wrought by Satan. Thus avoid it! Perhaps you may prosper. Satan just wants to cause hostility and hatred to occur among you in wine and maysir and to bar you from the remembrance of God and prayers (5:90-91/92-93). The prohibition is still alive today: Muslim theologians in Kuwait just banned in 1990 the buying of closed oysters. They argued that the exchange is illegal since it is done in hope of finding a pearl inside, and it thus represents a lottery.

The Muslim religious texts reveal the same picture as the earlier religious ones. They accept the use of lots and dice as a means of discovering the deity's will - to be used exclusively by priests and by judges in legal proceedings. But they condemn their use for other purposes and by laymen. The attitudes expressed in these texts remind one of those found at times in other Societies where texts, and, at times, even the alphabet, were said to possess magical qualities that only priests were allowed to be acquainted with and to consult. A glimpse of the sacred text by the laymen was declared to be sacrilege, against the 'public's interest.'

Gambling: a Competitor for the Soul?

Why would religious institutions object to gambling?

Let us look at the pleasures gambling provides. Two things induce people to play: the chance to become rich and to have a good time. The opportunity to win a large prize induces people to buy lotteries, and, as to entertainment value, let the players speak for themselves.

An 1988 New York Times article summarizes properly the behavior pattern of players: "Most weekday bettors [who take the trips to Atlantic City, where they eat casino-subsidized lunch for $2.50] live on Social Security and pensions. But if they are exploited, encouraged to go in too deep, there's no sign of it. They say they never bet beyond their limit. One after another approvingly recites this refrain: Bet with your head; not over it. Win or lose, these visitors seem to know, and get, what they want: the day's outing to Atlantic City is a welcome way to break up the week. They sit on the boardwalk, dine on restaurant food (and especially prize those places where pickles are free) and most of all, they enjoy the thrill of slot machines that swallow endless nickels, quarters and dollar slugs. The casinos also know and get what they want. They clear about 18 cents on every dollar wagered. These old people are not nutty about gambling; they are not eager to see casinos come to New York. They enjoy the journey and the long dreamy day. If casinos came closer, the Atlantic City adventure would, like so much else in their lives, be over."

Of course, unlike the exciting stories about the addictive gamblers who commit fraud, abandon the hapless spouse and kids, resort to drugs or murder, this is not front-page stuff. This information does neither sell newspapers, magazines, books, nor does it induce one to look forward to a movie or TV program based on stories of elderly discussing eating cucumbers, cheap lunch and playing bingo on a bus between New York and Atlantic City. But, as we found when we examined much evidence for our book, Gambling and Speculation (Cambridge University Press, 1991), the picture is very close to the truth.

If these are the facts, why would some people object so strongly to such prosaic, mundane desires? Why does one read about the persisting objections to gambling since antiquity? The answer may seem petty or even vulgar, but our findings fail to reject it: the objections, the false accusations were inventions of competitors fearing to fall behind when people showed clear preference for spending their time and money gambling rather than on traditional pastimes. The competitors cover their selfish motives behind religious and ideological veils, which are then taken literally by the gullible - many academics among them.

We do not imply that nobody was sincere in their beliefs when condemning gambling: they might have just thoughtlessly repeated opinions they have heard so many times, mistaking them for evidence. There is nothing surprising in this: self-delusions can be powerful, and particularly so when they serve people's interests.

There is no doubt that religious beliefs play complex roles in our lives. But there is little doubt too that it was around institutions based on such beliefs, in part, that people's hopes and optimism were ritualized. People who believed in Providence spent time in Church praying and listening to sermons. Other people sought solutions not in blissful afterworlds, but in better lives on this earth. For them, institutions and enterprises based on non-religious beliefs, gambling and secular activities in particular, offered the opportunities to both spend leisure time and ritualize their hopes. The traditional religious institutions claimed that the two types of solutions were incompatible, and belief in 'Chance' and the creation of secular opportunities cannot co-exist in society with a belief in "Providence.' Thus, many endeavors, those linked with gambling in particular, symbolizing a belief in chance, were severely condemned.

Indeed, well into the seventeenth century, the condemnation was articulated in treatises denying the very possibility of chance or accident. Tertullian, writing in the second century, noted that 'if you say you are a Christian when you are a dice player, you say what you are not, for you are a partner with the world.' Early Muslim theological thinking used gambling as a metaphor to illustrate the concern with free will against predestination. With the success of Islam, the Prophet's vision was interpreted to imply that people lived in a world with a definite purpose, determined by God from beginning to end, a purpose that did not permit anything to be left to chance.

Later in Europe, as the historian Keith Thomas has noticed, if there was a common theme that ran through the writings of Protestant theologians during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was the denial of the very possibility of chance or accident. In his Institutes (1536), Calvin remarked that the opinion "almost universally prevailing in our own day' was that all things happened fortuitously. 'The true doctrine of providence has not only been obscured, but almost buried. . . . If one falls among robbers, or ravenous beasts; if a sudden gust of wind at sea causes shipwreck; if one is struck by the fall of a house or a tree; if another, when wandering through desert path, meets with deliverance; or, after being tossed by the waves, arrives in port, and makes some wondrous hairbreadth escape from death - all these occurrences, prosperous as well as adverse, carnal sense will attribute to fortune'."

In his book on Religion and the Decline of Magic, Thomas also speculates that the fact that many surviving texts from these times argue in favor of the view that Providence should supersede the notion of a capricious Fortune, Fate or Chance, does not necessarily imply that people were convinced about the advantages of such beliefs. Rather, it was this viewpoint that was over-represented in surviving texts with which we are acquainted today. After all, education and thus literacy was to a large extent the Church's monopoly, with most of the poor excluded.

Yet the doctrines of providence are less likely to appeal to those at the bottom end of the society than rival ideas of luck. Belief in luck gives a boost to one's self-esteem because it can account for misfortune. The belief rationalizes discrepancies between merit and reward. So why should the poor listen to sermons that they have only themselves to blame, that it was their idleness and improvidence which had landed them where they were? This doctrine appeals to the well-to-do, but it can hardly appeal to that sizable proportion of the population who had no hopes under the political institutions of those days to improve their lot in life.

R. Kidder, a 17th century commentator remarked that 'the poor man lies under a great temptation to doubt of God's providence and care.' Indeed, evidence of their skepticism abounds - in spite of the severe punishments of the time. "There were innumerable men and women who chose to concentrate on the business of living and to let spiritual matters look after themselves," summarizes Keith Thomas, and who, 'when urged to give over their 'lewd life and detestable usury for [their] soul's sake,' replied in this vein: What pass I for my soul? Let me have money enough [and] I care not whether God or the Devil have my soul."

Gambling: a Competitor for Time

Competition for people's use of time explains the religious scribblers' condemnation, rather than evidence of the gambling humans' dissolute lives. Self-interested lobbying, covered by veils of language is not a recent innovation.

In 1388, Richard II secured the passage of a statute requiring people to buy items necessary for the martial arts, and stop spending money on "football, casting stone, and other such importune games." About a century and a half later, Henry VIII passed a law condemning gambling on the grounds that it diminished military ability, since people used their spare time for gaming rather than archery. Both laws were enacted in response to petitions from the bowyers, fletchers, stringers, and arrowhead makers - the military lobby of the times.

The Puritans who settled in the area that is now Massachusetts condemned gambling because they opposed "'idleness." The Massachusetts Bay Colony in its first year of existence outlawed not only the possession of cards, dice, and gaming tables, even in private homes, but dancing, singing and all 'unnecessary' walking on Sundays too. The Blue Laws of Connecticut, 1650, denounced game playing because it caused too much time to be spent "unfruitfully." Only in 1737 did the Massachusetts legislators amend the anti-gambling laws by noting that "All lawful games and exercises should not be otherwise used than as innocent and moderate recreations, and not as trades or callings, to gain a living or make unlawful advantage thereby." Still, as late as 1748, a New Jersey act equated idleness and immorality with fraud and corruption of youth. But one must be careful interpreting references to gamblers as 'criminals.' Their only crime might have been that they gambled.

Accusations Against the Leisure Industry

Although religious institutions have singled out gambling in their attacks, all new leisure industries were attacked throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth and our century. This observation led a British historian to comment that "The very essence of our laws has been against the social meetings of the humble, which has been called idleness, and against the amusements of the poor, which have been stigmatized as disorder."

The eighteenth century saw intensified attacks against blood sports. Opposition to cock-fighting, bull baiting, and throwing at cocks reached a peak with a series of local acts against these sports. Yet, whereas these bloody activities of the poor were under attack, fox hunting was not. In 1809, an article in the Edinburgh Review made this comment on the discriminatory treatment: "A man of ten thousand a year may worry a fox as much as lie pleases, may encourage the breed of a mischievous animal on purpose to worry it; and a poor labourer is carried before a magistrate for paying sixpence to see an exhibition of courage between a dog and a bear! Any cruelty may be practiced to gorge the stomachs of the rich, none to enliven the holidays of the poor."

Another type of recreation under attack was associated with drinking. Although people always drank, during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries drinking became especially widespread among the poor. Why? Alcoholic drinks had few substitutes as thirst quenchers. Even in the countryside, safe drinking water became scarcer with the significant rise in population. Even with increased investment in water companies after 1805, London's water was still unpurified, and London hospitals gave alcoholic drinks to their patients, not just because they were pain killers but also because they were safe. Milk was not only double the price of beer, but also dangerous to drink (it was not yet pasteurized, and its relative anonymity in urban areas facilitated adulteration). Tea became popular only after 1830, when the price fell sharply.

But increased consumption of beer and other alcoholic beverages was due to many more things, the most important being that the pub, where people drank, gambled, and watched 'cruel' sports, was the central place around which working men's social life turned. A series of articles in the Morning Chronicle during the 1840s documents the prevailing opinions about pubs' role in people's lives. One article refers to the effects on family life of women working in factories from adolescence. Being less capable of looking after their families, they encouraged their husbands to spend more time outside the house, in pubs in particular. Since the lack of light, heat, furniture and space did not make the houses very comfortable homes to live in, husbands did not need much encouragement.

Speakers for the middle classes disapproved of such ways of spending time. They advocated domestic pleasures and valued privacy and family autonomy, and were suspicious of assemblies, public gatherings, and crowds (this should not be surprising; after all this was not so long after the French Revolution, and in 1848 revolutions were in the air on the continent). What the critics failed to understand was that whereas the poor had houses, they could not be transformed into homes with the money they could save by avoiding gambling, drinking, or occasionally dressing up. What was thus rational from the poorer people's point of view, was regarded by middle class observers as criminally extravagant and irresponsible.

Railways, which enabled excursions, the use of bicycles, and music halls were also under attack, not surprisingly by religious institutions too. But as the secular world offered this greater variety of entertainment, religious picnics failed to satisfy, and the churches, trying to recruit and hold members, began to tolerate what they had previously condemned: outdoor games and dancing began to be admitted by 1890. Innovations were also made in the chapels, which by 1880 had better music and also organized sewing classes, bazaars, concerts, drama, and cricket and football clubs. By the twentieth century, some religious institutions came full circle, sponsored bingo games - and then lobbied governments to give them exclusivity on this pastime.

The Reverend Francis Talbot, a Catholic priest and editor of America, wrote that "I cannot grow frenzied with the puritanical precisionists who rate the bourgeois pastime of bingo as a major sin ... Played under proper auspices [the church?], with petty stakes, the worst harm that bingo causes is a sore throat. Church bingo parties are a healthy substitute for gossip teas, lovesick movies and liberal-minded lectures."

Whereas religious institutions compromised, new interests emerged attacking the much-maligned gambling industry. In the 1920s the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce opposed gambling on two grounds. First of all, the chamber said, retailers and established sources of entertainment such as movie theaters lose business during the racing season. Also, it claimed, petty crimes 'increase enormously.'

The second complaint is understandable, but is linked with tourism rather than gambling: large, transitory crowds provide an easy prey, and the criminals themselves can more easily disappear in the crowd. The first attack is to be expected: customers benefit from competition, not the threatened competitor.

In Florida, opponents of the liberalization of gambling laws today include Disney World and even pari-mutual betting operations. Opposition to legalized pari-mutual gambling in Texas comes from religious groups and neighboring states that already allow such betting. These states' opposition is not due to concern on the adverse effects of betting, but rather to the fear that a new Texas lottery would provide competition to their own, and diminish their revenues. New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland in Australia forbade the Post Office to handle lottery tickets in order to impede Tasmania's efforts to sell its lottery tickets. Such opposition is understandable, but the rationalizations should be doubted.

In the United States, state governments have run lotteries since 1964, when New Hampshire started a sweepstakes. Since then most states have followed suit, using - what was once said to be a great social evil to raise money - for "noble" causes such as education and services for senior citizens. But the state lotteries have created new interest groups opposing competition in the gambling industry: the bureaucrats who run the lottery operations and the politicians who spend the money they raise. Although the states began to consider legalizing other forms of gambling, they do not compete directly with the states' lotteries since they are not allowed to offer large prizes (in Las Vegas, where the Casinos offer large prizes, there is no state lottery).

Bingo halls in Quebec are not allowed to offer a prize higher than CA $3,500, although on the Kahnawake Mohawk reserve a high stake Bingo hall is disobeying the law, and is protected by the heavily armed Warrior society. A Lachine woman who won a 1990 Plymouth Sundance as a door prize at one of the illegal games on that reserve, faced criminal charges and her car was confiscated. The owners of the hall only announced that they will from now on award prizes that cannot be traced.

In late October, 1989, the Los Angeles vice squad swooped down on the Bowl Weevils, a bowling team of five housewives, and charged the women with illegal activity: wagering a total pot of U.S, $15.50 on their games. Why do states that spend millions on advertising their own lotteries, and getting hundreds of millions in revenues continue to restrict such innocuous forms of gambling?

Advocates justify such restrictions on the competition on the grounds that if the state did not control gambling, the industry would be dominated by the Mafia and riddled with fraud.

Now it is true that gambling has indeed been associated with crime, fraud and violence - but only when and because the industry was prohibited. However, crime, fraud and violence linked with gambling all declined when prohibitions were abolished. And while it is true that criminal elements were among the first business people to open gambling operations when some games were legalized, there was nothing sinister about this. After all, they were the only ones with knowledge of and experience in the industry. This is similar to what happened after communism when previous 'criminals' became "entrepreneurs". Yet recall that laws under communism defined commerce as crime, so many "criminals" sole crime under communism was that they might have sold homemade salamis.


Gambling has been a fierce competitor for consumers' leisure time and dollar, a choice that has not been taken kindly by other leisure industries, which did not lose time in inventing theories suggesting that they have a better claim to people's time and their money. The false condemnations have been repeated so often, and by so many powerful groups, that they succeeded to pass for fact.

This seems to be the main source of gambling universal condemnation: when one cannot do it in the marketplace, lobby for laws and regulations to restrict or eliminate the competition. In case of gambling, the success of such lobbying leads to expectations that, deprived of opportunities to gamble, people will spend more time and money on the competition. To achieve this real goal, it is always better to take the moral grounds - the defense of 'Providence' and of "the public interest" - to disguise the selfish interests, and confuse some feeble intellects, and sometimes even the not so feeble ones.

This brief summary of facets of the gambling industry's history does not justify the present level of government involvement in the business. Gambling should be a private industry, viewed as part of the broader leisure industry. Private management should decide how much to invest in lotteries, how much in their advertising, what type of casinos to open, where and when. It well may be that governments rely too much in their budget on this source of revenue, that they may spend too much on marketing and that it is governments - and not Wall Street - that is inducing too much casino mentality.

Let's then get to the basics: Why are governments in the lottery business exactly?

Note: This article draws on the Brenners' book titled Gambling and Speculation (Cambridge UP, 1991). All comments can be sent via e-mail to:

Reuven Brenner And Gabrielle Brenner

Thursday, January 9, 2003