Known as “Darwin’s rottweiler”, Prof Richard Dawkins caused a furore with a stinging attack on religion. Now the evolutionary biologist has turned his wrath on “new age” alternative therapies, describing them as based on “irrational superstition”.
Prof Dawkins says that alternative remedies constitute little more than a “money-spinning, multi-million pound industry that impoverishes our culture and throws up new age gurus who exhort us to run away from reality”.
The 66-year-old scientist has investigated a range of gurus and therapists, including faith healers, psychic mediums, angel therapists, “aura photographers”, astrologers, Tarot card readers and water diviners, and concluded that Britain is gripped by “an epidemic of superstitious thinking”.
Britons spend more than £1.6 billion a year on alternative remedies which Prof Dawkins describes as “therapeutic stabs in the dark”. Health has become a battleground between reason and superstition, he says.
“There are two ways of looking at the world – through faith and superstition, or through the rigours of logic, observation and evidence, through reason. Yet today reason has a battle on its hands.
Reason and a respect for evidence are the source of our progress, our safeguard against fundamentalists and those who profit from obscuring the truth. We live in dangerous times when superstition is gaining ground and rational science is under attack.”
He laments the fact that half the population claims to believe in paranormal phenomena and more than eight million have consulted psychic mediums, while the number of students sitting physics A-level has fallen 50 per cent and chemistry by more than a third in the past 25 years.
Prof Dawkins launches his attack in The Enemies of Reason, to be shown on Channel 4 this month. The professor, the author of many books from The Selfish Gene (1976) to the international best-seller The God Delusion (2006), holds the Charles Simonyi Chair for the public understanding of science at Oxford.
In the two-part television series he challenges practitioners. He asks an “angel therapist” how many angels he (Dawkins) has. The therapist asks him: “Have you asked any angels to come close to you?” Prof Dawkins says he hasn’t. “Well you haven’t got any then,” says the therapist.
He also meets a therapist who says she can teach him how to use his “psychic energy”, a kinesiologist who “clears energy blockages in the meridian system” and a “psychic sister” who talks about Mr Dawkins senior as though he were dead, until Prof Dawkins points out that his father is very much alive.
Satish Kumar, a spiritualist and the editor of the ecological magazine Resurgence, whose fans include the Prince of Wales and the Dalai Lama, tells Prof Dawkins: “I represent the entire history of evolution, I was present in the beginning, the first big bang, and I’ll be here for billions of years to come.”
Prof Dawkins visits Elisis Livingstone, a £140-a-day faith healer who treats patients – including some with terminal cancer – with meditation, spiritual healing and recorded chants at her Shambala Retreat in Glastonbury, Somerset.
He appears bemused as she intones: “Smile your very best smile, swallow the smile with some saliva into the heart and let the heart smile back at you€¦ and the golden glow that comes from the heart, comes from a golden flower and use the gold light from the centre of the flower like a sunbeam and beam it on to those petals and wake them up€¦”
But yesterday, Miss Livingstone hit back. “I have a 100 per cent success record with people at some level,” she told The Sunday Telegraph. “Richard seemed to enjoy it while he was here. He was smiling and he didn’t want it to stop.
“I deal with people including the bereaved and the abused, and I deal with their hearts. A rational mind cannot understand the heart.”
Another guru whose work was challenged was Deepak Chopra, described by Prof Dawkins as a “one-man alternative health industry”, who is paid up to $75,000 ( £37,000) per lecture and claims Michael Jackson and Madonna as followers.
The professor reserves some of his most scathing criticism for homeopathy, used by 500 million people worldwide, and which, in the UK, benefits from taxpayers’ money even though it requires no qualifications. The refurbishment of the Royal London Homeopathic hospital was part-funded with £10 million of NHS money.
Peter Fisher, the hospital’s clinical director and a rheumatologist, tells him: “I don’t claim that it’s much more than a hypothesis. What I do say is that I have considerable evidence that homeopathy does work.”
However, the medical establishment remains deeply sceptical about its success. A House of Lords committee found little evidence in 2001 that alternative health remedies work and raised doubts about a range of treatments, saying much of the evidence on homeopathy was anecdotal.