Temptation and Playing the Odds

Only 52 of Pennsylvania’s approximate 124,000 gambling “addicts” have signed up for a program that makes it illegal for them to gamble within the state. And why would these obsessive gamblers want to voluntarily restrict themselves from being able to engage in the recreational activity they love so dearly? To rid themselves of any incentive to gamble, and therefore to free themselves of an otherwise overwhelming temptation. You see, once you’re enrolled in the program, you’ve legally forfeited your right to any winnings.

The instructor for my summer class on free will brought this story to our attention today. Weakness of the will – or, doing what we know and even firmly believe we shouldn’t – is one of the most fundamental issues for exploration when it comes to the philosophical notion of autonomy. This particular news item, however, reminded me of questions that have struck me in the past, questions regarding what is the most “righteous” way to approach (or not approach) those actions and behaviors we consider to be morally wrong. If you’re uncomfortable with the religious overtones of such language, then consider the more neutral question of what is the most appropriate or correct way to approach (or not approach) those actions and behaviors we consider to be socially or even personally abhorrent.

Let me give an example to illustrate, an example that will hopefully ring true to many of us. Suppose you are driving on a highway where the speed limit is 65 mph. Suppose most people are driving somewhere between 70-75 mph, yourself included. Next, imagine that someone zooms past you at approximately 80 miles per hour. Suppose you think to yourself, “What a jerk! That person is clearly a selfish scumbag!” Maybe your character is such that the particular words you choose would be much gentler or harsher than this, but regardless, imagine that you consider the person going 80 mph to somehow be “in the wrong.”

Now, suppose you consider 79 mph to be an acceptable speed to drive under these current conditions. That is, you do not think someone driving 79 mph is to be regarded as socially or morally deviant. 80 mph, on the other hand, is crossing the line. If that is how you feel, then it makes sense to go 79 mph yourself. But would it be all the more praiseworthy to go only 75 mph? 70 mph? How about actually keeping the speed limit and going only 65 mph? Assuming you do not believe that actually abiding by the speed limit will cause any traffic problems (remember, this is just imaginary!), would it be morally better to go 65 mph? Or is anywhere between 65 and 79 mph equally good, given that you do not believe 79 mph is “bad” in the first place?

The point – it does not seem we often view morality on a scale. That is, while we may view certain acts as worse than certain other acts, we generally consider most individual actions to be either right or wrong, either good or bad, either acceptable or unacceptable. As far as these labels go, it is not intuitive that two actions that are both acceptable – wholly acceptable, mind you – can differ in the degree to which they are acceptable. If there is nothing unacceptable about action X or Y, then X cannot be more acceptable than Y. Perhaps X can be more preferred, or easier to achieve, or otherwise be given the upper hand if one must choose between X and Y. But X cannot be more morally acceptable than Y if both X and Y are entirely morally acceptable.

But is this analysis correct? Would it be better to drive, say, 70 mph if you (a) believed driving 70 mph was morally permissible, and (b) although you believed driving 79 mph is also morally permissible, you recognized that it is closer to being morally impermissible? Would it matter? Could it matter? Would it matter if you thought driving 79 mph was morally permissible but would also tempt you to drive 80 mph?

You may be wondering what this has to do with the compulsive gamblers. When my instructor brought up this news story, I asked (somewhat rhetorically) whether or not legally banning themselves from a gambling hall should be regarded as a sign of weakness on the part of these gamblers or as a sign of their strength. On the one hand, it seems that it is a sign of weakness. In effect, these gamblers are saying, “I am so out of control that if I do not take these drastic measures, I will keep gambling. I cannot do it on sheer willpower alone.” On the other hand, these gamblers are recognizing their weakness and taking steps to overcome it. They are, in a manner of speaking, driving 65 mph to avoid going 80. And can that possibly be bad??? Or is it merely courageous?

I used to think that the weaker you were about resisting temptations, the further away from those temptations you should stay. That may be good advice – but it may also be true that this is what the strongest people should and would do. It might actually be a strength to humble oneself enough to drive only 65 mph when there is no obligatory reason for doing so. To drive 65 mph when you know driving 79 mph will tempt you to go 80 may be a greater exercise of your strength (and faith?) than being able to drive 79 mph without crossing the line into the 80s. After all, perhaps driving 79 mph is just a way to sacrifice as little as possible, a way to approximate defiance as much as it is morally possible to do so. Should that be commended?

Some other interesting thoughts came up during our brief discussion of these gamblers, but I will save those for another post. Keep watching and you’ll see it soon. In the meantime, check out these two different takes on the Pennsylvania self-imposed gambling ban. The first is from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, though it is simply the Associated Press story that most newspapers covering the story ran verbatim. The second link is the official release given by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. According to the former, “few” people are signing up for the self-imposed ban. According to the latter, “many” people are signing up. Both acknowledge that the number of volunteers falls in the 50s, in which case I find the different spins to be somewhat amusing.

Associated Press news story via Post-Gazzette.com

Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board May 21, 2007 Official Release


Proud to be Polite

Harriet: “Where would you like to eat?”
Polly: “Wherever you want.”
Harriet: “Wendy’s?”
Polly: “Sure, sounds good!”

And off they go, Harriet excited about the place at which they’ve chosen to eat, and Polly not nearly so thrilled. From the conversation alone, it seems that both parties are happy with dining at Wendy’s, but Polly has kept her true feelings hidden. Polly was hoping for anything other than a fast-food burger/sandwich joint, but, to avoid disappointing her friend, she has readily agreed to eat at just such a place. Polly would probably argue that her actions are a result of politeness. Oh sure, perhaps she’s too polite. Perhaps she lets people walk all over her sometimes, but it’s all because she’s sooo nice. Nice to a fault, as some might say…

But what might others say? That Polly is a liar? The case could certainly be made, but would it merely prove a desecration of her altruism? Or is Polly really acting selflessly to begin with? Could it be that Polly’s “politeness” is selfishness in disguise? Could it be that Polly’s willingness to eat at Wendy’s is a sign of pride?

I struggle with being honest when it comes to making decisions that influence other people. I don’t want to let people down, and I genuinely believe that Polly could have a similar motive. But, when we “lie” in order to appease others, is our concern merely how that person will feel? Or are we trying to avoid feeling awkward ourselves? Are we seeking to give to the other person, or to prevent that person feeling less-than-pleased with us? I think that, in these situations, we are very often motivated by our own insecurities, rather than by the generosity or love we may feel for the other person. After all, don’t we already feel somewhat uncomfortable in those situations? And aren’t we trying desperately to limit the extent of that feeling when we seek to keep the other person happily oblivious? We employ dishonesty in order to preserve our friend’s momentary perspective of us as a good natured and jolly person to be around. But doesn’t that sound a bit like pride?

One might say that Polly prefers eating at Wendy’s to denying her friend the opportunity to do so. In that case, so the argument would go, Polly is making a genuine choice that correlates with her situational preferences. Thus, she is being honest. But this only holds if Polly sincerely feels there are only two options available to her—eating at Wendy’s or denying her friend’s happiness. But nobody can rationally assume this, and the same goes for all of the trivial, day-to-day examples that I wish to call into question. Sure, there’s a time for self-sacrifice, but to claim that an instance of choosing where to eat (or what movie to see, etc., etc.) is such a time is ludicrous. And so it seems we pushovers have to admit, sometimes we’re just too prideful to stick up for ourselves.


For Prayin' Out Loud

Some religions require their adherents to worship in a set manner—at certain times of day, in a certain fashion, even certain words. Likewise, some religions (Islam, for example) may require that certain prayers be given verbally—that is, the prayer must be said aloud. For many of us, day-to-day life is not filled with such prayers. One may pray often, and one may do so in a variety of fashions—kneeling at the bedside, closing the eyes, etc.—but I suspect many of these prayers are offered in silence.

I don’t know the reasons behind it, but I have taken a liking to saying prayers “out loud,” even when I am not praying as part of a group. Ironically, I find this sometimes helps me to pour my heart out more fully. This seems counterintuitive, but I have had such feelings on not just a few occasions. It seems there is something to this.

I am curious if anyone else has experienced something similar. Or, does anyone have any proposed insight as to why this may be the case? I would never give up my silent prayers, for I feel there is a certain quality to them that I sometimes desire in particular. But verbal prayers have taken a special place in my heart. Any thoughts?


P.S. to Amen

Reflecting on things since my last post, I’ve had an interesting thought strike me on more than one occasion. Perhaps the person who offers a prayer says “amen” for the same reason everyone else does—to express agreement. This would make sense if prayers are meant to be guided by the Holy Spirit, which would guarantee an accordance with God’s will. Thus, it would make sense to say “amen,” even for the one saying the prayer—not because we’re agreeing with ourselves (which would make the “amen” redundant), but because we concur with the inspired direction from God. What do you think?


Can I Get An Amen?

As a child, I remember asking why we say “amen” at the close of our prayers. My parents told me that it was a way of expressing agreement. If my sister offered a prayer and I agreed with what she said, I should say “amen.” Being quite young, I went through a period of time when my clever mind would mischievously tempt me to withhold my amens. Armed with a completely legitimate excuse for breaking tradition, I felt an enormous sense of power for someone my age. “But you see, Mom and Dad, I don’t agree.” And what could my parents possibly say to that?

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve naturally grown out of such infantile temptations. Then again, I’ve also realized that the rote repetition of saying “amen” has virtually stripped the word of any real meaning. I’ve heard people say “amen” to prayers offered in foreign languages (without being bilingual). I’ve heard people say “amen” to the unintelligible prayers of those with serious physical and mental handicaps. And, unless I’m the only one who’s ever done it, I’ve heard people say “amen” to prayers that were simply too quiet to be understood. In short, a lot of people say “amen” no matter what.

I used to defend this behavior by telling myself an amen could, at least in some instances, merely seek to sustain the sincerity of the one praying. Sure, that old man may have prayed too softly for me to hear what he was saying, but as long as he gave his best effort, I might as well say amen. But is this right? Should we frivolously and carelessly offer amens, regardless of whether or not we understand the words prayed? If not, how much epistemic responsibility do we have before we are justified?

Undoubtedly, no one would say amen if a prayer seemed completely blasphemous, blatantly deranged, or otherwise severely misguided. But is this the only reason we should abstain? Is it right to say amen without really understanding the intent and purpose of the prayer? To say amen as polite social protocol? Further, do we need to agree with the prayer in its entirety before we say amen, or can the amen be internally selective in what it’s condoning?

By the way, I never understood the reason the person actually praying had to say amen. For all I ever knew, it was merely a coordinative technique used to demarcate the end of one’s prayer. And to be honest, I still don’t have any better ideas. All I know is that it would feel really weird to end a prayer without it, even when praying alone. After 25 years or so of praying, I guess that only makes sense.


Look, I'm a Theologian

When I started Orange Theology, I did not intend for lengthy essays on core doctrinal concepts to be my only posts. Instead, I wanted this to be a place for any and all reflections of a spiritual matter. As such, I now present something a bit more lighthearted. I recently took an online quiz titled “What Theologian Are You?” With a very limited exposure to historical theology, I personally cannot make much of the results. In fact, I haven’t even heard of two or three names on the list. Add to that my difficulty in interpreting several of the questions, and I am far from assessing this quiz’s validity. Is it pretty accurate? I couldn’t tell you. The fact that my strongest theological alliance was only at 67% may suggest that I misunderstood much. But oh well. Here are the results. Feel free to play along.

You scored as Anselm. Anselm is the outstanding theologian of the medieval period.He sees man's primary problem as having failed to render unto God what we owe him, so God becomes man in Christ and gives God what he is due. You should read 'Cur Deus Homo?'



J�rgen Moltmann


Karl Barth


Martin Luther




Charles Finney


John Calvin


Friedrich Schleiermacher


Paul Tillich


Jonathan Edwards


Which theologian are you?
created with QuizFarm.com


What is Worship?

As a child, I believed the term “worship” was synonymous with “prayer.” When people worshipped false idols, it meant they prayed to them. I saw myself as worshipping God, because it was to Him that I offered my prayers. Worship was just a fancier term for prayer.

Now that I’m older, I realize there is a difference. But what is it? As one of its definitions, the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language equates worship with “the reverent love and devotion accorded a deity, an idol, or a sacred object.” As a verb, worship is “the ceremonies, prayers, or other religious forms by which this love is expressed.”

If we accept this definition, we admit that something other than God—the true God—can be worshipped. This makes sense, of course. If we claimed that only deity can be worshipped, Jews and Christians would be forced to dismiss any Biblical accounts of worshipping false gods (either that or seriously reinterpret them), while the atheist would have to suppose that nobody in history has actually worshipped. “Worship,” for the atheist, would become a void term.

But if we allow things other than God to be worshipped, will this affect our concept of worship? If a man possesses a “reverent love and devotion” for his wife, and if he views marriage as a sacred institution, does he worship his wife? This seems to fit the definition given above (unless we get picky and say that a wife is not a “sacred object,” in which case we can just as easily accuse the man of worshipping the institution of marriage itself). It seems our definition needs some tweaking.

By inserting a subjective requirement into the definition, we may find our solution. Perhaps worship is “the reverent love and devotion accorded to someone (or something) that is considered deity.” This definition makes no claims about whether or not a worshipped being actually exists. One isn’t forced to believe in the gods of Greek mythology to believe that people did in fact worship Zeus. Thus, our definition allows both religious and non-religious persons to recognize the existence of worship, even when such worship is seen as being “false” in some way or another. At the same time, our happily married man cannot be accused of worshipping his wife, because he does not consider her to be deity.

The problem is, something still seems to be lacking. Is it accurate to say that the pious Muslim, who feels “reverent love and devotion” to Allah, is constantly in the state of worship? Or is he only worshipping Allah when he is consciously aware of this love and devotion? Perhaps it isn’t a problem. Perhaps we are comfortable saying the religious devotee is always in the state of worshipping his/her god, just as we are comfortable saying the devoted husband always “loves” his wife, even when he isn’t reflecting on it. But there seem to be theological consequences in taking such a stand. When a religious devotee engages in something he/she views as sin, is this person still engaged in worship? It seems counterintuitive to suggest that he/she is. For even if a “reverent love and devotion” for God exists within that person, the fact that it remains so hidden suggests that worship cannot be taking place. Certainly devotion cannot be consciously recognized while sinning occurs, even if in some twisted way love can.

This means that worship, at the very least, must be “the conscious recognition of reverent love and devotion accorded to someone (or something) that is considered deity.” So is this our definition? When a Christian claims to worship God through song, is this merely because the song brings them to an awareness of God-focused love? Does the woman who, while taking her morning jog, recalls her love for Jesus thereby automatically engage in worship? Is one able to worship without seeking a spiritual communion with deity? Without praying or otherwise “speaking” to God? Our current definition does not imply a reaching out to God, but merely a recognition of our attitude towards Him. It is not even a recognition of God directly, but a recognition of how we feel about God. Are we content with such a definition?

I have not tried to provide a final answer. I do not feel I have one. In my own experience, I feel that worship does require a spiritual communion of sorts. Perhaps our definition is not that far off. Perhaps the final adjustment I would make is to require that the love and devotion felt is being expressed and not just recognized. Hence, an elaborate definition may be: “the conscious attempt to express and/or communicate a reverent love and devotion, accorded to someone (or something) that is considered deity, to that someone (or something).” This makes worship a rather personal affair that can take on many forms. This appeals to me, as I believe musicians, poets, seamstresses, and anyone else can worship God by offering their talents. On the other hand, an instance of someone merely remembering that he/she loves God does not constitute worship. I feel good about this definition, but it’s always open for revisal. So let the comments begin.