Many people who enjoy gambling as a form of entertainment don’t often think about the ethical or moral implications of their pastime.
However, over the past century, as gambling has become legalized in various places around the world, people have paid more attention to what the world’s great religions have to say regarding gambling.
There was a time in the United States when Christian churches, along with a few Jewish synagogues in more enlightened communities, typically held moral authority in society.
In today’s global society, however, there’s hardly any nation on the face of the planet that has only one faith influencing its common ethics. Thus it’s necessary to look at the world’s five great religions to understand how people approach the question of whether gambling is a sin, and why.
A brief survey of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism finds that rarely does God speak directly about the human practice of gambling. For example, since Buddhists don’t believe in a divine being at all, it’s unlikely that there would be a word from “God” on the subject.
At the other end of the spectrum are the millions of Hindus in the world, some of whom believe in one supreme divine being and many of whom believe in hundreds of gods. Which god would be the authority about gambling?
Hence, it’s advisable to take a look at the beliefs of each major religion to get a sense of how its adherents view the practice of gambling as a social phenomenon. This is particularly important for countries in North America, which has experienced an influx of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
The following exploration takes these faith groups in chronological order, according to their emergence in human society.
According to the website, Die Hard Indian, Hinduism is the world’s only major religion without a specific founder or a single authoritative scripture. As the major religion of India, Hinduism is practiced by approximately 80 percent of the country’s 1-billion-plus citizens. Its roots extend back to practices dating to 1000 BC.
As mentioned earlier, some Hindus believe in a single supreme deity, while others believe in many gods. The concept of “sin” in Hinduism is bound up in the idea known as “karma.”
Most Westerners can understand karma as “what goes around, comes around.” In other words, Hindus believe that one lives a virtuous life in order to escape the cycle of reincarnation, in which one’s deeds in a previous life determine one’s status in the next, until one becomes so virtuous as to achieve nirvana, or spiritual oblivion. Those who suffer in the current life are suffering to make amends for their past misdeeds.
One ironic outcome of karma is that until recently, there was little charity to the less fortunate, because to assist someone in a destitute condition was seen as interfering with that person’s karma, thus endangering one’s own.
However, over the past century, the compassion of the great spiritual leader, Mahatma Gandhi, for the lowest classes of Indian society both Hindu and Muslim, has lifted the virtuous status charity for others.
Hinduism’s view of gambling thus is conditioned by the ideas of karma and reincarnation. Gambling is specifically forbidden according to the most ascetic Hindu practices, while less stringent sects tend to look at the motivations and outcomes of gambling to determine its morality. In general, gambling for entertainment would be frowned upon.
Buddhism is an offshoot of Hinduism traced to its founder, Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, “The Enlightened One.” The Buddha lived and taught in the northeastern Indian subcontinent sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. His teachings spread throughout Asia and evolved into two main sects, with many different subcategories practiced by today’s 500 million adherents.
In general, Buddhism does not believe in the existence of a supreme divine being, so there is no “god” in Buddhism to ask about the sinfulness of gambling. However, Buddhism incorporates some of the concepts of Hinduism such as reincarnation and karma, with the ultimate spiritual goal again being release from the cycle of reincarnation.
In essence, the beliefs of Buddhism center on the Four Noble Truths about human suffering and how to alleviate it through a set of spiritual and ethical practices known as the Eightfold Path.
Among Buddha’s teachings, there is a definite recommendation against gambling related to the suffering it causes in human society. This teaching comes from a sacred Buddhist text known as “Sigalovada Sutta: The Layman’s Code of Discipline.” The Sigalovada Sutta is the 31st Sutta, or chapter, described in the Digha Nikaya (“Long Discourses of Buddha”). This is the teaching attributed to Buddha:
There are, young householder, these six evil consequences in indulging in gambling:
- The winner begets hate,
- The loser grieves for lost wealth,
- The loss of wealth,
- His word is not relied upon in a court of law,
- He is despised by his friends and associates,
- He is not sought after for matrimony; for people would say he is a gambler and is not fit to look after a wife.
The Jewish religion traces is origins to the covenant made with God by the biblical patriarch, Abraham, who is also revered in Islam as the founder of its faith. Judaism is held to be the world’s first monotheistic religion, in which divine authority is vested in a single supernatural being who takes a personal, direct interest in humanity’s destiny. Today there are an estimated 18 million Jews who practice this faith.
The Jews gave world civilization one of its finest sets of moral and ethical laws in what is known today as the Ten Commandments. Some of the concepts in the Law, as it’s known in Judaism, reflect similar views from Middle Eastern cultures such as that of the Babylonians, where the Code of Hammurabi was the first to uphold protection of the most vulnerable. The aim of the Law is to create a lasting society based on personal and collective religious virtue.
Over the centuries, the Jews evolved a communal way of determining morality and ethics through a series of religious authorities known as rabbis. These successive academies of religious scholars debated moral and ethical issues together and issued their views in a compilation known as the Talmud.
Regarding gambling, the Talmud records that the rabbis take a dim view of the practice. They condemn gambling as both a risky financial enterprise as well as a pastime with the potential to be addictive, leading men to abandon life’s responsibilities. From a moral perspective, the Talmud holds gambling to be a sin because the loser in gambling wasn’t expecting to lose. In other words, the loser has his money taken from him reluctantly, almost like stealing, and he gains nothing tangible for his efforts.
Furthermore, says the Talmud, gambling of any kind gives only an illusion of contributing value to a local economy. Ultimately gambling produces nothing of enduring value for the community.
The world’s 2.2 billion Christians look to the teachings of their Lord, Jesus Christ, for guidance in contemporary life. However, Jesus said little specifically about gambling. However, as an itinerant Jewish rabbi who was believed to have lived and taught somewhere around the first century CE, Jesus had lots to say about money and its uses. It’s important to understand the historical context of Jesus’ time to understand the background of his teachings about money.
The Palestine of Jesus’ era was an occupied part of the Roman Empire. Except for the few in the elite of society, most Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors in the region lived poor, rural lives and were expected to work their farms and herds solely for the benefit of their Roman oppressors. Taxes were high and their lives were full of suffering.
Into this reality came Jesus of Nazareth. Instead of taking up social or political authority based on wealth, as most Jews expected of their Messiah, he taught his followers that the acquisition of money was not the ultimate goal of life. Instead, he taught that loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself were the pinnacles of human existence.
In Matthew 6:24 of the New Testament, Jesus proclaims, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” He brought this concept to life later when he attacked the tables of the moneychangers in the outer courts of the Temple in Jerusalem. The moneychangers were key to the Temple’s economy, because they exchanged foreign coins for temple coins, and they sold the sacrificial animals used in Jewish religious rites. Christians believe that Jesus’ action was among many that led eventually to his death on the cross, and his Resurrection by God.
Second- and third-generation followers of Jesus wrote down his teachings about the evils of the love of money. Two of the faith’s earliest texts, 1 Timothy 6:10 and Hebrews 13:5, both cautioned believers “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Therefore, since gambling is clearly based upon a love of money and the promise of quick, easy riches, Christians for centuries have condemned it. However, there exist today many views among Christians as to what constitutes gambling, and whether God can “redeem” money won through gambling if it is given to a church.
Today, one of the most active American denominations working against legalized gambling is The United Methodist Church. The United Methodist Board of Church and Society, its social action arm, categorizes gambling with “other addictions,” while the church’s highest legislative authority, the General Conference, gives what may be the best contemporary definition of the New Testament teaching that the love of money is the root of all evil:
“Gambling, as a means of acquiring material gain by chance and at the neighbor’s expense, is a menace to personal character and social morality. Gambling fosters greed and stimulates the fatalistic faith in chance. Organized and commercial gambling is a threat to business, breeds crime and poverty, and is destructive to the interests of good government. It encourages the belief that work is unimportant, that money can solve all our problems, and that greed is the norm for achievement. It serves as a ‘regressive tax’ on those with lower income. In summary, gambling is bad economics; gambling is bad public policy; and gambling does not improve the quality of life.” (2004 Book of Resolutions, “Gambling,” ¶203)
Although it traces its roots to Ishmael, the son of Abraham by his slave Hagar, Islam is the youngest of the world’s great religions, held to have begun when the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) received the divine revelations contained in The Holy Qu’ran in CE 610. Today there are some 1.6 billion followers of Islam known as Muslims, meaning “obedient to God.”
In Islam, there are two types of deeds: “halal,” meaning lawful according the Prophet’s precepts, and “haram,” meaning sinful to such an extent that engaging in it would result in punishment under Islamic law. Gambling is one of the deeds that are considered haram in Islam.
According to Muslim sources, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the founder of Islam, and his companions were opposed to any form of gambling – card games, horse racing, gambling machines, or a lottery.
The sacred text of Islam, The Holy Qur’an, says: “O ye who believe! Intoxicants and gambling, (dedication of) stones, and (divination by) arrows, are an abomination, – of Satan’s handwork: eschew such (abomination), that ye may prosper. Satan’s plan is (but) to excite enmity and hatred between you, with intoxicants and gambling, and hinder you from the remembrance of God, and from prayer: will ye not then abstain?” (Sura Ma’idah 5:90,91).
Islam primarily forbids gambling because it takes away someone’s money without actually earning it. The gambler puts forth no effort whatsoever in order to win the money. Since the money was accumulated through the gamble money of other gamblers, taking the winning money without giving any contributions back to the contributors (other gamblers) would be no different from stealing, a view similar to that of Judaism.
Muslims also hold the same view as Jews about the addictive nature of gambling as destructive to the security of family and society. As a Muslim website says: “Since Islam is all about peace and the building of families, the act [of gambling] would go against the very core of the religion.”
Clearly, all the world’s great religious faiths hold gambling to be wasteful at the least, and at the worst to be an action that harms human society and offends God, i.e., a sin.
It’s doubtful the extent to which these religious beliefs have any influence over non-believers who engage regularly in gambling, or who earn their livelihoods through gambling. However, the traditions and teachings of the majority of the world’s religions certainly hold some sway over their adherents, billions of people around the globe who abstain from gambling as an expression of their devotion to their faith.