Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Something For Nothing

This month's selection for the Skeptics' Book Club was Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. I thought it was an interesting book and a good read, but I won't say much about it here, or about the discussion at the book club, because (previous blog entries notwithstanding) that isn't really the point of this blog (insofar as this blog has a point). I bring it up mainly to mention that it was as I was reading this book (the day of the book club meeting yesterday, since I kind of put things off and didn't end up buying it till the last minute), a thought occurred to me that I thought might be worth blogging about here. It really wasn't related to the book it all; it just happens that as I was reading a short bit about gambling, I thought about the attitude toward gambling in the LDS church--and realized (what I see as) the essential hypocrisy of it.

First of all, though, I want to make it clear that this post isn't meant as a defense of or apology for gambling. I may not believe in the doctrines of the LDS church, but that doesn't mean I've suddenly started gambling just because I no longer believe that God said not to. There are good reasons for not gambling, and God has nothing to do with it. So I agree--to an extent, anyway--with the church's stance on gambling. I just think it's not consistent with some aspects of the church doctrines.

Why does the church come out against gambling? Well, for a fairly concise explanation, we can turn to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism--which, while technically not an official church publication and certainly not considered on the level of canonical scripture, draws from statements by church leaders, has been (unofficially) sanctioned by the church leadership, and generally gives an accurate description of LDS doctrines and attitudes. Here's (in part) what the Encyclopedia has to say about gambling:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints condemns gambling, games of chance and lotteries as moral evils and admonishes its members not to participate in them in any form. Gambling is based on the morally wrong philosophy of getting something for nothing, of taking money without giving fair value in exchange. Not only is gambling morally wrong, but is also bad economics for customers. The lavish gambling centers around the world stand as ample evidence that the chances of winning are weighted heavily in favor of the establishment and against the bettor.


Now, that latter part, about the bad economics, I have absolutely no quibble with. Gambling certainly is bad economics, and if the church excoriated it on that reason alone, that would be entirely defensible. But that first point, about the "morally wrong philosophy of getting something for nothing"...let's take a closer look at that, shall we?

I have a great deal of sympathy with the church's viewpoint on this, actually. I don't particularly like the idea of getting something for nothing; I honestly wouldn't much want a fortune to fall into my lap with no effort on my part--largely because then I'd never know whether I could have succeeded on my own, and I think I have a good deal of potential to do so (though admittedly my current financial status doesn't provide much evidence toward that hypothesis). Whether or not it's really a moral wrong, getting rich by pure chance, with no work or talent involved, isn't something I'd be comfortable with. So, at least for the sake of argument, I'm willing to go along with the church's condemnation of this on general principle.

However...is the church really opposed to getting "something for nothing" on general principle? Hm...well, let's see. What about the whole doctrine of the Atonement?

The Mormon church, like other Christian churches, teaches that Jesus Christ suffered for our sins...though some of the details are a little different. By His death on the cross, and His later resurrection, he enabled all of us to someday be resurrected as well. By His taking upon Himself all our sins in the Garden of Gethsemane, He made it possible for us to get forgiveness and exaltation.

Now, some other Christian churches criticize the LDS church for its supposed focus on works--for its insistence that man has to follow the commandments and undergo certain covenants in order to gain full exaltation. This contradicts some other denominations' teachings that all you have to do is accept Christ into your heart and you'll be saved--a clear case of "something for nothing" there. Nevertheless, the LDS church's position isn't really all that different. We aren't saved because of our works, the church teaches; we could never be saved by our own effort. Our following the commandments, and so forth, isn't what saves us; it's just something we have to do to take advantage of Christ's atonement. But the atonement, the offer of redemption, is a free gift, something we'd never have the power to do ourselves.

So the Atonement is something for nothing. Or at the very least it's taking something of value--eternal salvation--without giving fair value in exchange. Again, this is a point that's made over and over in church teachings, that nothing we could do could possibly make up for what Christ has given us. Quoting Mosiah 2:21 from the Book of Mormon:

I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.


That seems to me like a pretty explicit statement that we're not giving fair value for what we're getting.

Of course, there are other examples, too. There's resurrection, which according to church doctrine is even more of a freebie, in that we don't even have to follow the commandments to get it--everyone who lives or has ever lived on the Earth, regardless of how wicked and sinful they are, will eventually be resurrected. And, of course, there's Pascal's Wager, which is often used in some form or another to try to justify religious adherence (frequently by people who seem to think they've invented it themselves and to be unaware of its ubiquity). Heck, it's even called a "wager". The reason I focus here on the Atonement specifically, though, is because it's so central to the church's teachings. Christ's Atonement is supposedly "the most important event in the history of the world"; it's the keystone of the church's doctrine.

That's one of the big appeals of religion, I think--not just the LDS church, but many other religions as well. Getting something for nothing. Being able to affect our destinies through prayer--which involves negligible effort. Gaining eternal bliss and salvation for nothing more than--in some denominations--just saying you accept Christ. The popularity of gambling shows that the chance of getting something for nothing is a big motivator--and I think it may be what motivates a lot of people to be religious, too.

So, yeah, if the LDS church wants to condemn gambling (and of course similar remarks could apply to many other Christian denominations too)--I'm fine with that; I'm no fan of it myself. If it wants to proclaim that the idea of getting something for nothing, or for less than fair value, is a "morally wrong philosophy"--I don't have much problem with that view. But you know, if the church really feels that way about getting somethng for nothing, it seems a bit inappropriate for it to center its entire doctrine around it...

6 Comments:

At 4/13/2007 10:58 AM, Blogger King Aardvark said...

The popularity of gambling shows that the chance of getting something for nothing is a big motivator--and I think it may be what motivates a lot of people to be religious, too.

I love getting stuff for nothing; hey, free money! It's certainly appealing. I agree with that observation about religion.

It does seem like there are several different facets of this 'getting something for nothing' question though.

1) getting something for nothing - ie. a gift.

This would include the supposed resurrection doctrine, but also includes getting a present from somebody or somebody feeling generous and giving out donuts at the office.

2) getting something for nothing - ie. a wager.

Has nothing to do with generosity if you do end up getting something. You play the odds trying to win, either money or like for Pascal's Wager. Usually there is someone on the other side trying to play the odds against you.

3) getting something for nothing - ie. blind chance that isn't a conscious choice.

This happens to everyone. Like a wager, there are odds to be played out, but it's not something we voluntarily enter into. Hell, even being born into a wealthy caring family instead of a near-death village in Darfur is getting something for nothing, and it's just thrust upon us.

Do I have a point here? I don't think so. I have no idea where I'm going with this except that there doesn't seem to be anything really moral about any of this at all, it just is part of life.

BTW, I memed you.

 
At 4/15/2007 3:43 AM, Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

I would say the difference in those three scenarios is that only with gambling are you trying to get something for nothing, something you haven't earned. I recall being told once that "Justice is getting what you deserve, Mercy is not getting what you deserve, and Grace is getting what you don't deserve." Sounds fine, though of course the definition of Grace implies that what you get is good - the whole think implies that you can't possibly deserve good things. (Which is one of my beefs with all forms of Christianity, but that's a different topic.)

At any rate, what I mean is, gambling is a deliberate attempt to get good things without paying for them. If someone gives you a present, unless it's a *Free Gift*!!, then you didn't particularly ask for it and (even if you did tell them what you wanted) you can reciprocate with your gifts back to them.

I'm not sure the doctrine of Redemption is the same as "trying to get something you didn't earn and won't pay for". You do have to pay for Redemption - with your soul and will, if nothing else.

 
At 4/19/2007 10:48 PM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

I'm not sure the doctrine of Redemption is the same as "trying to get something you didn't earn and won't pay for". You do have to pay for Redemption - with your soul and will, if nothing else.

But that's not the wording of the rationale for opposing gambling. The rationale is that gambling is getting something for "less than fair value"--which the doctrine of redemption says salvation rather explicitly is. The quote I gave from the Book of Mormon makes it quite clear that, doctrinally, people are not paying a fair price for what we're getting.

That being said, yes, I realize there's certainly a difference between gambling and receiving a gift, and the parallel is sort of weak in that respect. My main point--which I don't know that I explained very well--is that religion is all about getting something for nothing, all about...well, what I said in the second to last paragraph of my post, I guess. As much as they might try to justify it as a gift from God, there really is a something-for-nothing aspect to it all--the more so, of course, if God doesn't exist and they just invented the idea wholesale.

Eh...I don't know. I'm still not making my point well. This makes more sense in my head than I'm managing to make in writing. I probably should have taken more time to think that post out better. Ah well.

 
At 4/30/2007 6:13 AM, Blogger Speedwell said...

Something for nothing? There's no such thing.

Say I sent you ten dollars this morning. You first reaction would not be something like, "Hey, thanks, I'll go out for lunch today, or maybe upgrade the flowers I was going to send Mom." I'm a perfect stranger to you and you would wonder what my motives were. You'd ask me, "What do you want me to do with this money?" Now, I could say, and mean, "Anything you want to." If you then decided you wanted to turn around and send it back to me, I would feel that you weren't doing it right. I might be offended or hurt. Or if you took the money and gave it to someone I didn't like, or put a match to the check and burned it up, I might be angry. This shows that I had expectations after all, doesn't it? In a nutshell, I would want you to accept the gift with gratitude and pleasure, and use it in a way I assumed to be appropriate and respectful. Doing anything else would break the implicit contract and destroy its value.

Now, say I found a lottery ticket and it turned out to be the sole winner of a ten-million dollar jackpot. That's the classic example of something for nothing, right? Well, the money doesn't magically appear in my hand. I have to go to the lottery office, get photographed next to the official holding the huge check, sign publicity and liability releases and confidentiality and nondisclosure and nondefamation agreements, agree to their terms and conditions, and generally work for their marketing department in the capacity of informal spokesperson for a while. Lotteries exist to sell tickets and generate profit, and in this way even a huge payoff can be seen as a revenue-generating expense. Plus, there are additional costs to me in accepting the money. I have to hire an investment counselor since no ordinary savings account can be insured for ten million dollars. I have to hire an accountant to do my taxes. I have to give up my time to administer the fortune, and my former identity and lifestyle as an ordinary person to take on that of a multi-millionaire.

Now, say I went to church and was offered "the free gift of salvation." (I think you see where I'm going with this.) This is like both the gift and the lottery. I am expected to respectfully and gratefully accept the gift and to apply it in an approved way. I am also expected to become an active and high-profile spokesperson for the religion, to generate converts and revenue for the church, and to give up my previous identity and lifestyle to maintain my own image as a convert.

Now, Christians naturally object to this, saying that God does not actually require anything from us because he is perfect and needs nothing. So, tell me, why does a perfect God who needs nothing require converts?

 
At 4/30/2007 6:26 AM, Blogger Speedwell said...

Now, I was getting off topic. OK, here's something on topic.

If the Mormons meant to say gambling encourages theft or fraud, they could have said so. Or if they meant to say that the unreasonable, though exciting, expectation of winning an amount out of all proportion to the wager killed the work ethic, they could have said that. But they didn't. Instead, they chose to give a nonsensical, indefensible little sermon on how it's wrong to expect something for nothing. That's just nuts.

 
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