6 min read

An irresponsible gamble

Out-of-date law and human nature mean sports betting is more than harmless fun – it ruins lives, argues Sam Tomlin.

Sam Tomlin is a Salvation Army officer, leading a local church in Liverpool where he lives with his wife and children.

The edge of a football pitch showing an advertising hoarding with a betting brand name on it.
Lars Schmidt, via Wikimedia Commons.

On 21st April 2021 husband and father of two young children Luke Ashton took his own life. Suicide is the biggest cause of death for men under 50 in the UK, but this suicide had a particular source. As recounted by his widow and now anti-gambling campaigner Annie, Luke developed a gambling disorder linked to his support of Leicester City and football gambling more generally. Getting furloughed in the pandemic exacerbated the problem and he succumbed to aggressive advertising on his smart phone, losing more and more money to the point of despair and no return. 

I am not surprised to hear of stories like Luke’s. That’s because I am a Salvation Army officer. Some may view the pledge to give up all forms of gambling when you join its ranks as archaic and over-the-top, but this insistence by the Salvation Army, which was founded in the 1800’s, was a response to the devastation to lives addiction can cause. Far from being a thing of the past, gambling continues to wreak havoc, especially in poor communities like the one I live and serve in today. I have had personal items stolen and pawned to fund gambling addictions and have heard of people losing thousands of pounds in a few hours.  

Recently our church was part of a local campaign to stop an iconic building from being turned into a cashino, something which we and others in our community knew could have a devastating impact. Thankfully the company withdrew the application, probably because of local opposition, but areas of high socio-economic deprivation like ours are always under such threat. 

If you force young people to endorse addictive products, don’t be surprised if they use them.

I have friends who gamble on sport and tell me it is just harmless fun. It makes the experience more exciting when you have money on it, they say, something sports betting companies focus on in their advertising. While not every gambler is a problem gambler (Public Health England estimates there are 2.2 million who either are problem gamblers or are at risk of addiction), I am not convinced that it is harmless fun for two main reasons. 

Firstly, the risk of ‘harmless’ gambling turning into problem gambling is not adequately managed by UK legislation. The 2005 Gambling Act refers more to gambling by post than online gambling and was passed at a time before smart phones. This legislation, intended to boost the economy through liberalising gambling laws, has allowed sports gambling to spiral out of control; 40% of Premier League clubs are sponsored by a betting company with many more in lower divisions. Concerns have been raised about transparency on behalf of these betting companies and it seems clear that these companies exploit the Premier League’s global profile to reach potential customers in countries like China where gambling advertising is banned. Aston Villa recently responded to a supporter backlash against a new sponsorship deal but made it clear that money talks: for clubs outside the top six (who can attract significantly greater deals), betting firms offer ‘twice as much financially as non-gambling companies.’ 

My team, Bristol City, had a gambling sponsor for many years until this season – although ironically children’s shirts had the sponsor changed in a tacit acknowledgement of potential harm. Hypocrisy in football betting runs much deeper though. Ivan Toney the Brentford striker currently faces a lengthy ban for a breach of the FA’s betting rules, but as The Big Step campaign (led by people harmed by gambling) pointed out – with various pictures of Toney receiving awards and shirts with gambling sponsors on them - ‘If you force young people to endorse addictive products, don’t be surprised if they use them.’ 

It is almost impossible to watch a match on TV without being bombarded with free bet offers and the latest deals with former players enticing fans to gamble their money with a few simple clicks on their phones. One recent study questions whether it is possible to gamble responsibly in an age of smart phones, and outlines significant potential harm even for ‘low and moderate risk gamblers — including relationship problems, being distracted, lost opportunities across work and personal life, secretive behaviours, and a compulsion to open and continually re-engage with the app.’ 

A review of the Gambling Act is currently being carried out, but frustration is growing as publication is delayed. While a blanket prohibition on gambling would neither be practical or desirable, campaigners hope that steps will be taken to restrict gambling advertising in much the same way that advertising for smoking has been banned. The gambling industry cite the contribution gambling brings to the economy, but a report by the Social Market Foundation suggested that tighter regulation could actually boost the economy and in 2016 it was estimated that gambling addiction cost the economy £1.2bn a year. For a society built on an understanding of ‘freedom,’ however, as defined by challenging anything that might hinder our individual wills, gambling may constitute the example par excellence of the confluence of social and economic liberalism. Any significant change to legislation will be hard-won. 

The second reason is that gambling promises more than it can ever actually deliver. This is why it so often ends in harmful addiction – it can never truly satisfy what are ultimately spiritual needs, so it continues to draw you further and further in until you are no longer in control but it controls you. 

There are perhaps three main reasons people gamble: the desire to win money, the social aspect and the thrill or excitement. There is no doubt that gambling offers the possibility of fulfilment, to some degree, for all these things: occasionally people win large sums of money, it can make sport more exciting and help make the social experience more fun. 

We are indeed made for community and the communal enjoyment of sport.

As Christians see it, however, gambling offers an unreliable and ultimately unsatisfying route to fulfilling these desires. The Bible warns us about the love of money and encourages honest work as opposed to chance for earning what we need to live It also points to the importance of charity and justice for those who do not have enough. We are made for community and the communal enjoyment of sport is a gift from God (as I have written about in the past). It is perfectly possible, however, to enjoy sport without gambling – really supporting and following a team or player comes with enough ups and downs to produce a wide range of emotions; I have cried, bitten my nails, hidden my head in my hands and hugged random strangers often during one single game. It could be argued that even non-problem gambling contributes to fund an industry that demonstrably preys on vulnerable people, failing the command to love our neighbour. 

We are also created to experience thrill and excitement beyond the mundane aspects of everyday life, but the greatest drama according to the Christian faith is found in being caught up in God’s redemption of the world, ‘reconciling all things to himself’ as we read in the New Testament. As many Christians will testify – even the most exciting Hollywood film is a pale imitation of the excitement and drama of giving up your life to follow the way of Jesus, and this is certainly true of the fleeting and temporary thrills experienced through gambling. 

Unlike some religions which want to supress desire, the Christian faith affirms desire as a good thing. The question is, what our desire is aimed at. Augustine once said that our hearts are restless until they find rest in God. Created things or activities like sex, possessions, money or experiences are good when enjoyed in the right context, but when – like with gambling - they promise more than they can deliver, more often than not it ends in dissatisfaction and potentially even disaster as Luke Ashton’s story tragically demonstrates.  

5 min read

Dawkins is wrong about the nature of belief

You can’t rejoice in its collapse and like its cultural inheritance too.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A man sits and speaks, against a background of a bookcase.
Dawkins on LBC.

Richard Dawkins sat in a tree,  

Sawing every branch he could see,  

As he sawed through the branch on which he sat,  

He raged, "It's not fair that I should go splat!" 

I am a recovering New Atheist. I was such a New Atheist that I have a claim to fame: I have given what-for to Anne Widdecombe and the Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja. I was there, as a spotty, greasy haired, angry teenager when Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry socked-it-to the Roman Catholics at an Intelligence Squared debate. The motion was ‘The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World’. The question I asked was so poorly formed that the moderator deemed it a comment.  

I was a callow youth. Forgive me.  

I am now not quite so young and not quite so spotty. Now that I am a man, I have put away childish things. I have abandoned atheism and embraced faith in Jesus Christ. I am a priest in the Church of England, fully in favour of the Ten Commandments and the moral framework of the Church. Clearly, I’ve been on a journey.  

So, it seems, has Professor Richard Dawkins.  

The author of The God Delusion, and scourge of many public Christian thinkers and apologists, has recently made some turbulent waves. Having surfed the tides of New Atheism, he now seems to be swimming against the current. He is a proud ‘cultural Christian’. In an interview on LBC he forcefully defended the Christian inheritance of this country: 

“I do think that we are culturally a Christian country…I call myself a ‘cultural Christian’… I love hymns and Christmas carols…I feel at home in the Christian ethos… I find that I like to live in a culturally Christian country…” 

Professor Dawkins went on to clarify (several times!) that he doesn’t believe a single word of Christian doctrine or the Bible. He was cheered by the continued decline in the numbers of believing Christians in this country. This wasn’t his Christianity. He argued that the distinction between a ‘believing Christian’ and a ‘cultural Christian’ is such that one can be both a very firm atheist and a ‘cultural Christian’. He doesn’t want people believing the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Jesus, but he does want us to keep our Cathedrals and beautiful parish churches. At first reading this could be seen as positive - an unlikely defender of the Christian faith coming to the rescue of a beleaguered Church.  

It isn’t. 

What the interview demonstrated was that Professor Dawkins doesn’t really understand the nature of belief or the nature of culture. If he did, he would understand a basic principle: culture doesn’t just magically appear and grow. Culture is formed and maintained from fundamental beliefs.  

You can’t have the fruits without the roots. 

Professor Dawkins likes church music. He likes the architecture of grand Cathedrals. He likes living in a society with a Western liberal ethic. All three of these fruits have grown from roots of the Christian tradition, and not just any Christian tradition. They have grown out of the BELIEVING Christian tradition.  

Why on earth would people spend inordinate amounts of time and money building Cathedrals if they didn’t actually believe the worship of God was important? Why would musicians pour out the best of their creativity into sacred music if not for a love of Jesus? Why would they structure our society in a way that sees the care of the poor and oppressed as a fundamental necessity if they don’t take the Sermon on the Mount seriously? 

People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

Professor Dawkins finds himself living in a world that has been so shaped and saturated by Christianity that even our secularism has been called ‘Christian’. He lives in a Christian house. He likes it. Now he thinks he can have it and keep it while seeking to undermine and destroy the very beliefs that are the foundation, the stones, the mortar. 

He can’t.  

You don’t get to demand that everyone build their house on sand, and then complain that it is collapsing…and he does worry that it is collapsing. Predictably, he opened the interview by discussing his qualms about Islam and how he wouldn’t want this country to change from being ‘culturally Christian’ to ‘culturally Muslim’: “Insofar as Christianity can be seen as a bulwark against Islam I think it’s a very good thing.” I find this invocation of my faith offensive - not just because I believe my faith is ‘the truth’ (not just a club for angry atheists to bash Muslims with), but because it is so stupid! 

I use the word advisedly.  

It is a comment from a man who can’t seem to understand cause-and-effect. People who don’t believe strongly in something don’t fight for it. Rejoicing in the collapse of Christian belief while expecting it to protect you from other religions is about as obtuse as an individual can get. The Church grew, and spread, and produced the hymns and cathedrals and ethics that Professor Dawkins loves so much, because of people’s firm belief in Jesus Christ as our Risen Saviour. People died to spread this faith - THIS CULTURE! As Tertullian said: “…the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

It was this realisation that led me to where I am now. I found that everything I cared about flowed from the Christian faith I rejected, so I rejected it no more. I wanted to continue enjoying the ‘fruits’ of my ‘cultural Christianity’, so I stopped hacking away at the ‘roots’ of ‘believing Christianity’. Professor Dawkins is seemingly wilfully blind to this fact: ‘believing Christian’s make it possible to have ‘cultural Christians’. Take away the belief and just watch what happens to the culture. 

“I don’t was to be misunderstood. I do think it’s nonsense.” 

As a believing Christian I respond: can we please have our culture back, then?