A reasonable man

New Agers are a soft target, but it's a joy to watch Dawkins take them to task

<strong>The Enemies

How much am I enjoying Richard Dawkins's new series (13 and 20 August, 8pm)? Quite a lot. No, scratch that. It's heaven. The first programme left me in such ecstasy that, were I the kind of irrationalist lunatic it attacked, I would undoubtedly have convinced myself that the moon rose in Mercury (or whatever: there's no such thing as accuracy in astrology, so don't write in) at precisely the same moment as it began.

Truly, no scented candle or massage has ever made me feel this great. All that stood between it and perfection was an encounter with Gillian McKeith; I would love to have seen the look on Dawkins's face as, like some hunched medieval herbalist, she talked mucus to him. Of course, this would have been a touch tricky. It is Channel 4, after all, that we must blame for making McKeith the most famous turd examiner in Britain. Is it offering up Dawkins by way of compensation? If so, I won't be bought; Dawkins is good, but he's not that good.

Having had a go at rabbis, bishops and mullahs in The Root of All Evil?, Dawkins has now turned his attention to astrologers, alternative healers, dowsers and psychics. His critics will argue that this hessian bag of beardy-weirdies is too easy a target and, to a degree, they'd be right (though when TV's this much fun, who cares if he occasionally takes candy from a baby?). Dawkins, however, looks at the New Age and sees only the return of a diminishing "primitive darkness".

For every crystal that is bought, as for every horoscope that is read, our already shaky understanding of science retreats yet further. The result is terrifying: increasingly, we put instinct before facts, feelings before evidence. For the vulnerable - the desperate cancer patient who believes that green tea and reiki will cure him - the results can be catastrophic. But the rest of us are not acting any smarter. When parents abandoned the MMR vaccine in the face of the best medical advice, a young boy became the first child in Britain to die of measles in 14 years.

Although I agree with Dawkins about all this, what I really love about the series is its inherent high comedy. The opening scene showed him sitting, rosy of cheek and downy of hair, in a circle of people who were listening to some hardcore chanting. Their eyes were closed, but the professor's were open, the expression on his face hovering somewhere between alarm, disdain and hysteria. His technique when communing with the likes of those who see angels is to listen to them attentively, and then come at them with an obvious question. He told the spiritualist Craig Hamilton-Parker that were he able to talk to a dead person, he wouldn't bother discussing their dislike of the vase their relative had stuck on the hall table; he'd ask them what it was like being dead, and if they could see the whole universe. At a New Age fair, he spoke to a medium called Simon Goodfellow, who kept on about the great change that was soon to take place in Dawkins's life. "The word Simon seems to be fishing for is retirement," he murmured, in a voice-over.

Having played a bamboo pipe - Dawkins could make a decent living as a womb music artist - and said "hello" to a crystal ball called George, he set about demolishing astrology. This isn't difficult, obviously, though his point that it involves the kind of facile discrimination most of us abhor in any other realm was very neat. Imagine if someone published the following in a newspaper: "Germans, it is in your nature to be hard-working and methodical, but you need to curb your natural tendency to obey orders."

Dawkins asked Neil Spencer, the Observer's astrologist, to take part in an experiment to test the accuracy of his predictions. Spencer refused. "Your intention would be mischief," he said, "and what you'd get back would be mischief." So, astrology is a precise science until it is tested, at which point it turns into something altogether more mysterious. Dawkins's reply - he expressed surprise that Spencer was not more eager to prove his authority - was designed to suggest that, deep down, not even astrologists believe in their work.

And if they don't, why should anyone else? Like Dawkins, I'm damned if I know.

Pick of the week

Tribe 3
21 August, 9pm, BBC2
Anthropology is fun: Bruce Parry visits the Amazon's Matis people.

The Secret Life of the Motorway
21 August, 9pm, BBC4
History in three nostalgic parts. Once, there were no traffic jams!

23 August, 9.30pm, BBC2
Steve Coogan's extremely annoying ex-roadie returns.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The most important protest of our time