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Categorized | Religion, Society

The Plight of Pedro, the Pious Poor Pinoy

I was reading about Archbishop Cruz’s crusade against jueteng when I found this:

“Gambling, legal and illegal like jueteng simply impoverishes poor people while gambling operators, the politicians and some law enforcement people take advantage of the people’s ignorance making them hope of winning instead of working hard,” he explained.

Impoverishes poor people. Authority figures taking advantage of people’s ignorance, making them hope instead of working hard. Sounds like organized religion to me.

Anyway, it reminded me of a post I wrote in 2009, but haven’t shared on this site. It may not be about illegal gambling, but it’s just as relevant. Here it is.

* * *

Symbols of Salvation

Pedro Perez is poor. A 40-year old factory worker, his salary is barely enough to feed his five children — let alone send them to school — and his wife has one more on the way.

But he has hope. Kneeling in front of a tiny TV, he waits, holding in his hands the symbols of his salvation — a lottery ticket on the left hand, a rosary on the right.

Our hypothetical hero, however poorly I’ve caricatured him, is not alone. With the jackpot reaching a record P348 million, millions of Filipinos have been flocking to PCSO lotto outlets for weeks [This was in March 2009].

And every Sunday, especially on that fateful Sunday when the winning number would be revealed, Pedro joined his flock, fervently praying in church that his ticket be blessed, instead of the tickets of those praying beside him.

Because for millions like Pedro, pious and poor, the only solution that can save them is a miracle. And who better to create a miracle than the Creator? What better miracle than turning one piece of paper into millions of Pesos?

As the lottery TV show starts, Pedro tightens his grip on the ticket and rosary. In their fight against poverty, these weapons are more related than we realize.

The Improbable and the Unprovable

To bet on a ticket, Pedro pays ten pesos, and once a week waits in line for a piece of white paper.

To bet on Pascal’s Wager, Pedro tithes ten percent, and once a week waits in line for a piece of white wafer. (Of course, faith and obedience are requirements, too. But the same can be said for the lottery, especially for those who believe that faith and obedience increase the probability of winning.)

Yet with these infinitesimal investments the payoffs are infinitely big. The February 22 prize was 34.7 million times larger than the price of a lotto ticket. Similarly, an infinity in Heaven is, infinitely longer — and more livable — than a lifetime lived in pious poverty.

But in both cases, the probability of winning is depressingly low (though ignorant and always hopeful, pious Pedro is rarely depressed). To win the 6/49 Super Lotto jackpot for sure, he needs to buy 14 million tickets; to win the 6/45 Mega Lotto jackpot, 8.1 million; the 6/42 Lotto jackpot, 5.3 million. Pedro’s friends who realized this play jueting instead, where the probability of getting the right combination is just 1 in 666 (though I’m sure knowing this number many of them would be turned off).

Yet however low these odds are, Pedro could still win the lottery. With more than 1,300 Filipinos who’ve won since 1995, there is proof. Which is a lot more than can be said for the existence of a supernatural being. The probability of the already complex universe being created by an infinitely more complex creator is infinitely low. Besides, if there were proof, Pedro wouldn’t need faith.

Lottery Players and Rosary Prayers

In spite of all this, millions of people around the world still play the lottery, and billions still believe in God. And just like lottery and religion, these people have a lot in common.

In 1999, four professors in Duke University authored a study on the demographics of lottery players. They found that the highest lottery spenders were the lowest paid and least educated.

In 2003, the United Nations’ Report on the World Social Situation revealed that 39 of the 40 poorest nations, and the 35 most illiterate nations (in terms of youth illiteracy) are more religious than their wealthier and more literate counterparts.

In his study, “Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns,” Phil Zuckerman concluded that nations with high organic atheism (atheism freely chosen) are more likely to have healthy societies, indicated by low poverty rates, high per capita income, low illiteracy rates and high educational attainment (not to mention low homicide rates and high gender equality).

However, Zuckerman reminds readers that these findings don’t necessarily prove that religion causes societal ills, nor does atheism cause societal health. Rather, healthy societies are attracted to atheism while unhealthy societies turn to religion.

Yet although there is no proof that religion and the lottery make people poor and uneducated, some evidence suggests that it keeps them that way.

So how has Pedro been kept poor by lottery and religion?

Victims of a Vicious Cycle

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon found that people who were made to feel poorer buy more lottery tickets. They noted that “lotteries set off a vicious cycle that not only exploits low-income individuals’ desires to escape poverty but also directly prevents them from improving upon their financial situations.”

With only elementary education, Pedro cannot get a job that pays enough to support his wife and five children. And with the recent hit to the global economy, the situation is only getting worse. So instead of saving the little money he has left, Pedro spends it on the lottery, his last “Hail Mary,” as David Just calls it.

“This is not something they do for fun,” says Just, an associate professor of economics at Cornell University. “It’s ‘If I don’t do this, I have no chance of ever pulling out from where I am’.”

So Pedro continues to spend on tickets, which makes him poorer, and thus more likely to spend on and rely on tickets, all the while keeping him from doing something truly worthwhile — thus, the vicious cycle.

But why doesn’t Pedro just get out? The simple answer: he does not know what he’s gotten into. Because pious Pedro’s faith has kept this truth from being revealed to him.

In two recent studies led by Assistant Psychology Professor Michael Inzlicht, researchers found that believers are “less likely to feel anxious about making errors.”

“Obviously, anxiety can be negative because if you have too much, you’re paralyzed with fear,” says Inzlicht. “However, it also serves a very useful function in that it alerts us when we’re making mistakes. If you don’t experience anxiety when you make an error, what impetus do you have to change or improve your behaviour so you don’t make the same mistakes again and again?”

But even if Pedro could find out, getting out of this trap would be torture. Imagine continually betting on one combination most of your life, suddenly stopping, only for your lucky number to win the jackpot the following day. Such a cruel fate would make life a living Hell for anyone. And for people who believe in Pascal’s Wager, not playing for a chance at Heaven could also be Hell — literally.

Thus, Pedro is doomed to live his life the way he always has, pious and poor, underpaid and uneducated, but always faithful, always hopeful. Unless of course his God answers his prayers and he wins the lottery.

But tonight, like many nights before this, he does not win. He crumples the lottery ticket, lets it go, and holds the rosary solemnly with both hands.

Pedro bows his head, crosses himself, and prays:

I know I’m not worthy,
with sin I am weak,
But if it’s in your will,
please let me win next week.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions in this post do not necessarily represent the position of the Filipino Freethinkers.