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Greg Graffin: Punk-Rock Ph.D.

August 1, 2007  |  12:00am
Greg Graffin: Punk-Rock Ph.D.

The frontman of legendary punk outfit Bad Religion stalks a much different stage nowadays. But even though he finds religion and science incompatible, he’s still finding a way to mix science and rock, work and pleasure.

Greg Graffin’s lecture on the evolution of eukaryotes is about to begin, and I can’t find the damn lecture hall on the UCLA campus. suddenly a student on a skateboard glides by wearing a Bad Religion backpack, and I scurry after him, squeezing past the knees of lissome coeds into a seat just as Graffin begins. “Today we’re going to talk about the eukaryotes,” he says, “which form a huge group of organisms with characteristic synapomorphies.”

Most of the 250 undergraduates in this lecture hall don’t know that their Life Sciences 1 professor is also the co-founder and lead singer of one of the most influential punk bands in U.S. history. But for anyone who’s attended a Bad Religion concert, watching Graffin lecture is like stepping into a strange alternate universe. He moves in front of the blackboard with the same loose-limbed, awkward gait as on stage. His gravely baritone sounds the same discussing mitochondria as it does singing “Fuck Armageddon…This Is Hell.” Only occasionally does a note of politics sneak into his lecture. “I wonder how George Bush would do with this lecture,” he says, interrupting a disquisition on cell nuclei. “You know how he has trouble saying ‘nuclear.’ He’d have a hell of a time with nucleoplasm.”

Graffin, 42, is one of those rare people who seem to have combined two lives into one. As an undergraduate and graduate student at UCLA, he studied ants in Mexico, mammals in the Amazon River basin and reptiles in southeastern Arizona, and he earned a Ph.D. in 2003 from Cornell University for a dissertation exploring the attitudes of prominent evolutionary biologists toward science and religion. But he’s spent more time onstage than in rainforest canopies. He founded Bad Religion with two friends in 1980, when they were sophomores at El Camino Real High School in the San Fernando Valley. In the quarter century since then, Bad Religion has gained a worldwide following for its hard-driving, thoughtful, and — despite all the philosophizing — surprisingly fun songs. They’ve been “one of the greatest punk bands ever,” says Lou Brutus, host of the punk station, Fungus, on XM Radio. “Part of it is talent, and part of it is just determination to be a f—ing great band.”

Graffin’s home is in upstate New York, but he’s spending the spring semester in L.A. From eight in the morning until six at night he writes his biology lectures, meets with students and teaching assistants and grades papers. From six until midnight he’s in a Hollywood studio laying down tracks for Bad Religion’s 14th album. “I’ve never worked harder in my life,” says Graffin, who has a reputation for industriousness. “But this way I get to do both science and music.”

Science, music and religion are the three themes of Graffin’s life, and all make appearances on New Maps of Hell, which is due out in July. Over coffee in the faculty club after his lecture (Graffin is a visiting lecturer but gets the privileges of a professor), he free associates on his favorite songs from the new album. “Fields of Mars” speculates that humans may someday outgrow war and view it as an odd aberration of our species’ adolescence. “Grains of Wrath” — in classic Bad Religion style — warns against big oil’s lust for ethanol. “We have all these conglomerates that have essentially raped us, and now they have their eyes on the most fertile soil in the world,” Graffin says.

The song that seems to inspire him most is “The Grand Delusion,” which examines the idea that human morality is something that could come only from a supernatural source. “We delude ourselves into believing that morality comes from somewhere else whereas in reality we behave as we’ve been told to behave.”

Oddly, Graffin insists that his politics are muted on this album — at least compared to 2004’s Bush-bashing The Empire Strikes First. “We’re done with political commentary, at least in a blatant way,” he says. “We made our statement with that album, and now all we could do is say, ‘I told you so,’ and there’s no poetry in that.”

Graffin and his high-school friends named their band Bad Religion partly to piss off their parents, the band members say, and partly to condemn the late-1970s rise of TV evangelicals. “They were a great target for a punk band,” says Brett Gurewitz, Graffin’s high-school friend who later founded and now runs successful indie label Epitaph Records. “We didn’t think they would have any longevity. But we didn’t think a punk band would have any longevity either.”

But the name has come to mean more to Graffin than just another punk swipe at authority. He’s one of a small but growing number of atheists in the United States willing to talk about the damage they believe religion can do. “It’s dangerous to believe in something that has no reality, because then you can believe in anything just to save your own skin,” he says. “What would society look like without religion? It would look about what it looks like today, except there would be a lot less argument and fanaticism.”

Graffin’s clearly not out to win a popularity contest with the American public. A 2006 poll showed that atheists are the group most feared by the public as a threat to the American way of life (“below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians,” according to the study’s press release). Even the other members of Bad Religion don’t see eye to eye with him on this one. “I’d call myself a provisional deist,” says Gurewitz, who splits the songwriting with Graffin. “I don’t believe in a God who does much. But I do believe in God, for some reason that I can’t explain.”

Yet Graffin makes his case so clearly, forcefully and humanely that his views have been getting attention. A couple of years ago, Preston Jones, a historian at the Christian John Brown University in Arkansas, sent Graffin an email asking about one of his songs, and Graffin replied. Their resulting year-long email exchange was published last year as the book Is Belief in God Good, Bad or Irrelevant? A Professor and Punk Rocker Discuss Science, Religion, Naturalism & Christianity. It’s a rollicking back-and-forth about free will, the Inquisition, morality, love and punk music. Jones writes, “Imagine how bored you’d be if you didn’t have religion to be pissed off at. God doesn’t mind being of service — that’s his job (sort of).” “I’m not sure what the problem is,” Graffin replies. “Can you explain something better using God than using natural science?”

Graffin may not have persuaded his counterpart, but he charmed him. Graffin “really is a person of faith,” Jones says, “and it seems to me that he’s very much on a religious quest.”

On October 29, 1959, a car driven by Edward M. Zerr, a prominent elder in the Church of Christ, was demolished in a collision in the small town of Martinsville, Ind. Zerr suffered multiple injuries in the accident, slipped into a coma and died four months later. He had delivered more than 8,000 sermons over the course of his 82 years, and he left behind a six-volume commentary on the Bible that’s still widely used.

Zerr’s granddaughter, who is Graffin’s mother, grew up in a religious household in Indiana. But she turned away from her grandfather’s religion on her path to becoming a college English professor. The second of two boys, Graffin was born in 1964 in Madison, Wisc. He decided that he wanted to be a singer at the age of seven, partly after hearing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. But a much greater musical influence was his uncle, Stanley Carpenter, who led singalongs of old-time music whenever the families got together. “My mom and uncle would do harmonies, because they were from a religious family that would sing church songs.” Last year Graffin released an album of Americana, Cold as the Clay, that featured some of the songs he learned growing up in Wisconsin.

When Graffin was entering the seventh grade, his mother took a job as a dean at UCLA and moved the family to California. It was the defining event of Graffin’s adolescence. He traded the bucolic splendors of Wisconsin for the endless concrete suburbs of the San Fernando Valley. He was an outcast at school, too poor to dress like the rich kids, too interested in science to smoke reefer with the cool kids. He befriended Gurewitz — another self-taught musician enthralled by the pop rock of the ’70s — and they formed Bad Religion just as the punk scene was taking shape in Los Angeles. They taught another friend, Jay Bentley, to play bass. Since then, Minor Threat bassist Brian Baker, Circle Jerks guitarist Greg Hetson, and Suicidal Tendencies drummer Brooks Wackerman (recently the drummer on the Tenacious D tour) have given Bad Religion one of the most top-heavy collective resumes in punk.

“In California I wasn’t part of anything, and the world didn’t make much sense to me,” Graffin says. Then he discovered evolution. He began reading everything he could on the subject — one of his early songs that became a punk classic, “We’re Only Gonna Die,” was inspired by the final paragraph of the book Origins by Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin. He began volunteering at the L.A. County Natural History Museum, where he learned to skin and mount specimens. (He still keeps in practice by skinning the occasional piece of interesting roadkill.)

Bad Religion’s first recording, a self-titled 1981 EP, became a rallying point for the Southern California hard-core scene. From grainy videotapes, it’s hard to recognize the band’s potential beneath Graffin’s snarling lyrics and the haphazardly played guitars. But Graffin’s and Gurewitz’s musical eclecticism softened the band’s hard edge, and already they were probing more deeply than the typical punk screeds. Graffin once referred to Bad Religion as a folk group (much to the disgust of the band’s fans).

The band released a couple of other well-received recordings and then essentially broke up, partly because of a 1983 album of swirling, keyboard-oriented pop that seriously alienated Bad Religion’s hard-core fans. While Gurewitz began building Epitaph Records, Graffin got more serious about his education. An indifferent student in high school, he enrolled at California State University at Northridge for a year, got straight A’s, and eventually transferred to UCLA. There he earned an undergraduate degree in anthropology and began a master’s program in geology.

When the band reformed and released the 1987 album Suffer, something had changed. The songs were two-minute explosions of sound—tight, politically barbed, and often sung in a three-part harmony that belied the band’s in-your-face attitude. Most of the songs dwelled on the various indignities of modernity, though Graffin’s interest in science and religion also shone through. “Immortality’s in our mastermind / [But] we destroy everything that we find / And tomorrow when the human clock stops and the world stops turning / We’ll be an index fossil buried in our own debris,” he sang in “Part IV (The Index Fossil).”

Suffer is widely credited with reviving the Southern California punk scene, and it was followed by two equally good albums, 1989’s No Control and 1990’s Against the Grain. Since then, the band has had its up and downs, including a mid-’90s stint with Atlantic that coincided with Gurewitz’s departure to run Epitaph and get some personal demons under control. But its last two albums—2002’s Process of Belief, which marked Gurewitz’s return and the band’s reunion with Epitaph, and The Empire Strikes First — were as strong as anything since Suffer.

“We look at music writing as a craft,” says Graffin. “Every album we make we’re learning something new, and hopefully we can put all that knowledge together in one great masterpiece next time—and we’ve said that for the last eight albums.”

For his Ph.D. dissertation, Graffin sent questionnaires to a couple hundred of the world’s leading evolutionary biologists. One question he asked them was “Do you believe in God?” Of the 149 who replied, 130 answered “no.” That didn’t surprise Graffin. Earlier polls had shown that belief in God among prominent biologists was in decline throughout the 20th century.

But something else surprised him. He expected evolutionary biologists to hold that science and religion are incompatible. After all, how could biologists acquiesce to a religion that, in America at least, embraces a virgin birth and resurrection from the dead? Instead, the majority of the biologists who responded to his survey were willing to live and let live. They didn’t take religion very seriously—many viewed it simply as an evolved human trait. But they didn’t see any necessary conflict between science and religion. The majority agreed with the statement: “I keep my beliefs about morality and ethics separate from my practice and teaching of evolution.”

This angers Graffin. Partly he objects to the political consequences of self-censorship. “They worry that the public association of evolution with atheism or at least non-religion will hurt evolutionary biology,” he says. With evolution under attack in public schools and theocrats calling the shots in Washington, he says, scientists can’t afford to keep quiet.

But Graffin seems even more offended by what he calls the “intellectual dishonesty” of compatibilism. “There is no way to reconcile the two viewpoints, so quit trying to make them compatible when they’re not.” Graffin includes interviews in his dissertation that he conducted with 12 leading evolutionary biologists. Several, such as Richard Dawkins and Richard Lewontin, agreed wholeheartedly with his uncompromising stance. Others asked whether it was their responsibility to re-educate society. Graffin’s response: If evolutionary biologists won’t do it, who will?

Yet Graffin himself doesn’t sing about religion very often. When he does, he can be dogmatic, but more often he’s indirect and playful. “The process of belief is an elixir when you’re weak / I must confess, at times I indulge it on the sneak,” he sings in “Materialist.”

“I view music as entertainment,” he says. “When I’m on stage, I don’t look at that as a platform for sharing ideology. Otherwise I’d be a zealot myself. That’s why, when people ask me ‘Do you think you can change the world through your music?’ I say, ‘I doubt it.’”

But his songs have something important to say about faith, Graffin insists. Atheists’ lack of belief in God doesn’t mean that that they don’t believe in anything. On the contrary, atheists believe in the things that matter most — family, friends, good work.

“Belief does play a very important role in my life, but it’s a different kind of belief. In the family, in interpersonal relationships, even in friendship, faith is tremendously important. If you have a partner who you believe is a good person, then it is your duty to have faith in them until the end, despite the fact that they might have done some bad things. And you have to support and believe in your children. So what I’m saying is that faith has a strong component in love, and that’s where it belongs.”

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