BOOK REVIEW - Bo Fowler’s Scepticism Inc. 1998 Jonathan Cape. ISBN 0-224-05124-5
The Metaphysical Betting Shop is a bookmaker's dream. It only takes bets on arguments that are impossible to prove, such as the question of God’s existence. The business begins accidentally, when Edgar Malroy, a militant, cynical atheist, heckles a small town country priest in front of his congregation. When the priest sermonises about Jesus rising from the dead, Edgar asks how much he’s prepared to wager on the idea. The priest thinks he can stop Edgar by giving him money, and so do many of the parishioners. The incident attracts the attention of the press and more metaphysical bets are made. In no time at all, Edgar has built up a business empire, comparable to Macdonalds. He employs scantily clad bunny girls in white swimsuits and wearing fluffy question marks to take the bets. Each of these girls has to be trained to respond to every customer with the same nonchalant words; ‘Who Knows?". Each customer of the betting shops goes away with a badge bearing the legend, ‘Put your money where your metaphysics are." All the world’s religions get in on the act, Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientologists, Muslims, Jews & Buddhists, alike. Some of their leaders get so addicted to metaphysical gambling that they actually bankrupt their churches. Here is the speech made by an unapologetic Archbishop Of Canterbury after he has ruined the Church of England.
"No other religion has come as close as we have to betting ourselves out of existence. We are the first! Bravo, I say. Our uncompromising zeal and faith in Jesus Christ our Lord has outdone all the other religions in the world; we have truly put our money where our metaphysics are. Of this we ought to be truly proud. In light of scripture, the Church’s actions have been most noble. I congratulate each and every priest and member of our flock who has contributed in some way, no matter how slight, to our financial difficulties today. God bless you all."
Edgar is destined to die horribly, we learn from the start, with much of the story told in flashback. His epitaph is delightful. "Not sleeping, but dead."
With many religions perishing this way, the surviving faiths declare a holy war on the Metaphysical betting shops, (now part of the vast Scepticism Inc. Corporation with its own TV and radio shows). Edgar buys old churches and temples to store betting slips in, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, and he embarks on a plan to fertilise the world’s deserts (which he has used Church money to purchase) and feed the starving people of the world, but can he do it before the fanatical religionists opposed to his sceptical cause, catch up with him?
This story has a unique narrator, a Shopalot supermarket shopping trolley fitted with artificial intelligence technology. There are many other great off the wall ideas here; Pope John John declares that condoms are all right to use, but only if blessed personally by the Pope himself. There are many great one liners too; ‘People matter more than the truth’ for one. Maybe we should start such a betting shop ourselves? I think people would actually gamble in this way, given half a chance.
Fowler has written a brilliant, scathing first novel here. He happily denounces anyone who is religious as being simply ‘nuts’.
"The only difference between a cult and a religion, according to Edgar Malroy, is the number of nuts who subscribe to the nonsense peddled. If there are just a few nuts, then it is a cult. If there are lots of nuts then it is a religion."
Who knows? Care to wager?
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