The vast majority of Americans have gambled at least once. One can place bets on dog and horse races in 43 states, buy lottery tickets in 42 states, gamble for charity in 47 states, and play at commercial casinos in 11 states. As of 2010, all but two states (Hawaii and Utah) allowed some form of gambling. Gambling as a government-sponsored activity exploded in the late 20th century, and will clearly increase in the 21st century. Is gambling a moral and social problem? What are the social costs of problem gambling, and do they outweigh the social and economic benefits of increased state-sponsored gaming? Finally, how does the rise of Native American gambling in the late 20th century as a new income source for a traditionally deprived and impoverished minority population impact on the moral arguments for and against gambling? Although it may seem like a relatively recent social issue, the fact is that gambling has been a source of concern for many religious traditions for hundreds of years.
I. What Is Gambling?
II. Gambling in Western History
III. Gambling and Moral Judgment
IV. From Sin to Foolishness: Changing Western Attitudes
V. The Medicalization of Gambling: Problem and Pathological Gambling
VI. Problem Gambling and Pathological Gamblers
VII. Native American Gaming
What Is Gambling?
Definitions of gambling are elusive, but a helpful suggestion has been made by M. D. Griffiths, a scholar and historian of gambling in Western culture, as “an exchange of wealth determined by a future event, the outcome of which is unknown at the time of the wager” (Dickerson and O’Conner 2006, 7). Gambling is therefore a type of a game in which financial loss or gain for the players is part of— or even the main point of— the results of the game. Games can be played exclusively for the financial aspects, or financial aspects can be introduced to games that otherwise do not have gambling as their primary intention (e.g., betting on races or professional sports).
The controversies surrounding gambling stem largely from the large sums of money that can become involved. Left to small sums, there are few objections to introducing financial loss or gain to otherwise innocent pastimes. When, however, significant gains or losses are made part of the activity, gambling can become a storm center of debate that has strong religious involvement. The significant moral and social issues surrounding the tremendous growth of the gaming industry in the United States (and worldwide—Australian gaming is, per capita, much greater than in the United States) include concerns about the social costs of so-called addicted or pathological gamblers, of organized crime, and even of the equitable distribution of gaming earnings.
Gambling in Western History
Games of chance, often accompanied with serious consequences in winning or losing, have been a part of human civilization for as long as we have written records. In Gerda Reith’s (1999) important study, she notes that gambling of one kind or another has been an aspect of human play from the dawn of civilization. In ancient Greece, Plato believed that play, including games of chance, were among the more noble aspects of human activities; his fellow ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, on the other hand, believed gaming to be wasted effort and time. While there has always been a minority view in Western culture that has seen gaming, and gambling, as largely an innocent pastime, there is a dominant second tradition that stands closer to that ancient view of Aristotle by considering gambling a negative human undertaking.
Lotteries are perhaps the most widely attested form of large-scale gambling in Western history, and state-supported lotteries that are recorded in medieval Europe as early as the 15th century were intended to help raise funds to pay for military fortifications.
Gambling and Moral Judgment
It is hard to separate the history of gambling in human civilizations with the history of the very idea of chance. Through a good part of human history, there was no such belief in chance—it was believed that all events reflected the will of gods, spirits, or guiding deities. Various ancient religions routinely practiced a kind of casting of lots or dice-like devices in order to discover whether gods or spirits agreed with the course of actions determined by humans (e.g., whether a battle should be started on a certain day or month).
It would be difficult to find specific biblical injunctions against gambling, and within Judaism and Christianity, for example, there is a history of tense coexistence with gambling, particularly from the perspective of historical Judaism and the Roman Catholic Church. However, there is a tradition of a more intensively negative view in the Protestant Christian tradition, with similarities to Aristotle’s notion of waste, and, later, its associations with other activities seen as sinful (e.g., drinking and other forms of excess and, even more recently, organized crime). There are Islamic religious traditions that question gambling in much stronger terms than either Catholic Christianity or Judaism.
From Sin to Foolishness: Changing Western Attitudes
As strictly religious attitudes lost influence on European societies during the Enlightenment (18th century), religious condemnations began to be replaced with ideas that gambling was an irrational and wasteful pastime. Such an attitude toward the foolishness, rather than the immorality, of gambling can be heard in a 1732 poem by Henry Fielding:
A Lottery is a Taxation,
Upon all the Fools in Creation;
And heaven be praised, It is easily raised,
Credulity’s always in Fashion:
For, Folly’s a Fund,
Will never lose Ground,
While Fools are so rife in the nation
(cited in Dickerson and O’Conner 2006, 2)
The Medicalization of Gambling: Problem and Pathological Gambling
It is in the 20th century that the notions of sinful gambling and irrational gambling began to be replaced with a medicalization of gambling as an illness that required intervention and therapy. Clearly, such attitudes were based on those cases where serious amounts of money were lost by those hardly able to handle such losses rather than on the minor or moderate amounts lost by casual gamers who fl y to Las Vegas or Atlantic City in the United States for a few days of vacation.
A good part of the ancient and medieval opposition to gambling was based precisely on this notion that gambling was engaging in a kind of secular or antireligious consulting of higher powers. It is only when the very notion of random chance begins to be a widely held idea that gambling moves from being considered an irreligious activity to one that is considered irrational because of the randomness of such gaming, and, as an understanding of random actions and chance increased, so the awareness of risk in games of chance became a growing feature of the arguments of those who opposed this activity.
Finally, Reith points out that, as market economies developed in the West, attitudes toward gambling and risk-taking games changed from a religious view to views of its risky character or as a calculated opposition to high risk. One should engage in money- making activities that minimize risk, not only in business but also in leisure-time activities. As money making became quite literally a way of life for a growing class of merchants, the minimizing of risk also became a way of life—extending to leisure as well as work.
Some have argued that the gambling debate has been largely overruled by the very success of the industry and the dependence on that industry in many local economies around the United States. The debate continues to focus, however, on the issue of “problem gamblers.”
Problem Gambling and Pathological Gamblers
The Australian Institute for Gambling Research has defined problem gambling as “the situation where a person’s gambling activity gives rise to harm to the individual player, and/or his or her family, and may extend into the community” (Dickerson and O’Conner 2006, 11). Studies conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago examined social and economic changes attributed to casino proximity—a casino within 50 miles of a community—in 100 samples, and the federal government issued a major report by the National Gaming Impact Study Commission in 1999. The conclusions suggested that between 1 and 2 percent of gamblers (approximately 3 million people) can be classified as pathological gamblers, and another 3 to 4 percent are termed problem gamblers (about 3 to 8 million people), but it is clear that the vast majority of gamblers engage in gambling without measurably negative social or economic impact on themselves or their families. The NORC study concluded that the total societal costs of problem gambling were $4 billion each year but noted that this is a fraction of the social costs incurred by society in relation to drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, heart disease, and smoking.
Pathological gambling, on the other hand, has a recently defined set of diagnostic criteria according to the American Psychiatry Association. Among the more common criteria with which to diagnose pathological gaming are assessing whether a person: (1) is preoccupied with gambling (constantly thinking about past games and getting money for future betting); (2) needs to gamble with increasing amounts of money to achieve desired level of excitement; (3) has repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop gambling; (4) is restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop gambling; (5) after losing money gambling, often returns another day to get even (chasing one’s losses); (6) lies to family members, therapists, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with gambling; (7) has jeopardized or lost a significant relationship, job, or educational career opportunity because of gambling; and (8) relies on others to provide money to relieve a desperate financial situation caused by gambling.
Furthermore, the NORC study concluded that the presence of a casino in or near a community did not significantly increase crime; in some cases, small decreases in crime were noted.
On the other hand, opponents of gambling pointing out that, although the percentage of gamblers who are problem gamblers is low, it is precisely these problem gamblers who are among the most profitable clients of gambling establishments, and therefore they are the least likely institutions to argue for limitations on, or assistance for helping, problem gamblers who may wish to end their destructive behaviors.
Native American Gaming
One particularly interesting factor in the consideration of gambling as a social and moral issue is the rise of Native American gambling as a major industry on Indian land. Indian gambling is defined as gaming (including, but not limited to, casinos) conducted by a federally recognized tribal government and taking place on a federally established reservation or trust property. Although gaming brings in critically needed funds for often impoverished peoples, the total amount accounts for less than a quarter of the gambling industry revenues nationwide each year. A study written in 2005 found that 30 states are home to more than 350 tribal gaming establishments, operated by over 200 tribes that have decided to pursue gaming as a strategy for economic development (Light and Rand 2005).
About one-third of the approximately 560 tribes in the United States recognized by the federal government conduct casino-style gaming on their reservations. In some cases, tribes are located in states that do not allow any form of gambling (notably Utah), but, in other cases, the tribes have resisted gambling as a source of income—the most famous case being the Navajo, undoubtedly noteworthy because of their large population among Indian nations in the United States.
Nearly half of all tribal gaming enterprises earn less than $10 million in annual revenue, and one-quarter earn less than $3 million each year. On the other end of the spectrum, about 40 tribal casinos (or about 1 in 10) take in two-thirds of all Indian gaming revenues.
Before the rise of Indian gaming, the options available to many Indian tribes were quite limited. Often located on land considered useless to other Americans, Indians have traditionally suffered some of the highest unemployment in the United States, and have historically attracted the least economic investment.
While not distributed evenly among all Native Americans in the United States, it is impossible to deny that Indian gaming has initiated dramatic changes for the better for Native American tribal groups throughout the country. According to the 2007 Economic Census, while 13 percent of the total U.S. population fell below poverty level, nearly one third of Native Americans lived in poverty, with unemployment rates reaching as high as 50 to 80 percent in some cases. But as a direct result of gaming, total Native American unemployment is down, educational opportunities have increased, and economic development in other areas of local investment is occurring. Furthermore, there appears to be relative consensus across available research that Indian gaming generates direct, indirect, and induced economic benefits for state and local communities.
From a Native perspective, tribes are independent nations by treaty rights, and therefore there is already a high level of compromise with state governments, which have significantly benefited from profit-sharing arrangements. In Native terms, reservation lands are to be seen in the same way as the federal government recognizes a foreign country, and there ought to be no more resentment, interference, or taxation imposed on them—any more than the United States would expect to impose taxes or rules, for example, on Canada or Mexico, if either country should build a casino near the U.S. border. From many federal and state governmental perspectives, however, there is a limit to tribal sovereignty, and, thus, modern arrangements worked out between tribal and state governments on revenue sharing already represent a significant compromise between the two historically different perspectives on the meaning of tribal sovereignty.
A number of issues have been raised, particularly by Native gaming, that have further complicated this special aspect of the overall issue of gambling. First, the success of many Indian gaming establishments has lent new urgency to those Indian groups seeking federal recognition. However, even though many of these groups have struggled for federal recognition for decades, there is a new pressure on the federal government to impose limits on such recognition because of the widely held belief that gambling opportunities are what is really behind groups seeking federal recognition. There are well over 250 Native groups seeking tribal recognition in the United States.
Second, tribal groups have sought to expand their land claims and work in partnership with outside gambling industry investors to increase their development. Why the Native developers are blamed for this, as opposed to the non-Native investors and industries that are investing in their projects, however, is often hard to determine—other than viewing it from the perspective of long-term prejudices and racism.
Third, Native economic development has resulted in new political clout. Once again, however, heavy investment in the political process by interested parties that include defense contractors, agricultural interests, and oil and automotive companies do not often raise the same concerns—and one can argue that Native Americans are simply exercising their economic power as others have done for a long time.
While there are no clear or direct religious teachings for or against gambling in religious traditions such as indigenous, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, the increasing levels of personal risk, and the increasingly serious financial implications of professional gambling institutions, continue to make it a controversial activity from the perspective of many major religious traditions. In recent years, the medicalization of gambling has changed the terms of debate from an older religious-based argument about risk or about challenging the spirits or even testing God, to a debate about addictive and destructive behaviors that perhaps ought to be monitored in portions of the population in the same way that other medical or health risks are monitored as part of the responsibility of civil society.
Daniel L. Smith-Christopher
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