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Greg Graffin: Punk-Rock Ph.D.

Writer: Steve Olson
Features, Issue 34, Published online on 01 Aug 2007
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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.

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