The opening paragraphs of Chesterton's The Napoleon of Notting Hill are famous and thrilling, even if they are light-hearted, and they hit upon the very real and healthy schadenfreude we experience when our experts make pompous and bloody fools of themselves.
THE human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playingat children's games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. And one of the games to which it is most attached is called,"Keep to-morrow dark," and which is also named (by the rustics in Shropshire, I have no doubt) "Cheat the Prophet." The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clevermen have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. They then go and do something else. That is all. For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun..[. . .].But the way the prophets of the twentieth century went to work was this. They took something or other that was certainly going on in their time, and then said that it would go on more and more until something extraordinary happened. And very often they added that in some odd place that extraordinary thing had happened, and that it showed the signs of the times. Thus, for instance, there were Mr. H. G. Wells and others, who thought that science would take charge of the future; and just as the motor-car was quicker than the coach, so some lovely thing would be quicker than the motorcar; and so on for ever.
And so on indeed. It's all good fun. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that the Prophets have obligingly put all their ducks in a sweet, tempting row for the buckshot of a spiteful population. What surprised me most about it, however, was to discover that these are the same predictions about the future that men a hundred years dead made about today. Among the standard starry-eyed affirmations of immortality and an end to war comes the typical - we might say platitudinous - confident assertion that religion is in its death throes and will soon, mercifully, leave this earth forever. Says Richard Dawkins, in a phrase that could not have been better crafted were it the production of a satirist, "[the] final scientific enlightenment will deal an overdue death blow to religion and other juvenile superstitions."
Prove him wrong, people.