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...