Greg Graffin of Bad Religion
Jeff Jetton | May 18, 2011 | 9:07AM |

Reviewers of music tend to infuse their own personal relationships and memories with whatever bands or songs they are writing about, for better or for worse. It makes for boring copy. I could tell you about how when I was a sophomore in high school I stumbled across a friend’s VHS tape of Bad Religion’s video for the song Atomic Garden, off their album Generator, and how the angry young man in the video spoke directly to me as a suburban Orange County kid, disenchanted with the right-wing conservative ideology of his hometown and yearning to know that there were others out there who weren’t content with the dogma and hierarchy inherent in the surrounding systems.

How cliche is that, though? It’s pretty freakin’ typical. The truth is that there were probably less kids that WEREN’T listening to angsty music than WERE listening to angsty music. The great irony is that you or I or everyone we know is about as punk as my grandma. We were all pissed off, because growing up sucked. And if it didn’t suck, you were probably still listening to angsty music because angsty music has always been popular.

So I’ll spare you the stories about how Bad Religion changed my life. I will only say this: since I discovered the band in high school, I’ve always had a passing knowledge that lead singer Greg Graffin had a Ph.D in Biology and have always had a slight admiration for his ability to juggle two careers simultaneously: science and music. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Greg ahead of Bad Religion’s sold out show at the 930 club and talk bout his recent book on the two themes that have intertwined throughout his life: evolution and punk rock. And about our respective experiences with Salman Rushdie.

Greg Graffin: He’s my favorite author, Salman Rushdie is.

BYT: One of mine, too.

Greg Graffin: I don’t know if you know this, but I won the Harvard Rushdie Secular Society Award the second year it was offered. I was the second recipient of it. It is for cultural humanism, a lifetime achievement award.

BYT: That is pretty impressive. Did you meet Salman Rushdie?

Greg Graffin: He only wishes the winners well by writing them a note, so I got a note from him. I also received a nice official award.

BYT: But you didn’t get to get drunk with him?

Greg Graffin: No, I didn’t get to get drunk with him.

BYT: I win.

Greg Graffin: But I do have another great Rushdie story that I kick myself for every time. I was sitting on a flight from Frankfurt to London Heathrow, and who should be sitting right across from me but Salman Rushdie. This was during the height of the Fatwa, and he got on last with security and I thought: ‘he must be important’. Then I was like ‘Oh my God, it’s Rushdie’.  At the time I was reading my favorite book by him, which was Midnight’s Children. I wanted so badly to get it signed. I thought this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, the chances of the guy who I’m reading the book by sitting by me is almost impossible! I thought: ‘I’m just going to do this’, but then I thought ‘if I am going to do this then I am going to break his anonymity and the reason he got on last and the reason why he had so much security was because he needed his anonymity. I might cause his death by unveiling it if I out him right now’. The whole trip I was wondering if I should do it or not and until this day I kick myself because it probably wouldn’t have made any difference at all.

BYT: But you know the funny thing is about that story is that punk kids everywhere are going to read this and they aren’t going to say ‘oh my God, Greg Graffin met Salman Rushdie’, they’re going to say ‘oh my God, Greg Graffin rides first class!’

Greg Graffin: [laughs] You know what I can say to them? I’m a writer. I’m a writer and a professor [laughs]. Who do you think is riding up in business class? Writers and professors!

BYT: I’m assuming you’ve read Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience.

Greg Graffin: If it’s cited in my own book, then you can bet that I’ve read it.

BYT: In reading your book, I relate the theme of consilience to Anarchy Evolution in that it’s kind of uniting concepts across disciplines.

Greg Graffin: Well, I really commend you on your recognition, because it was written in 1998, Consilience was, and it was very inspiring to me and it probably was a decade in the making. But inspiration can take a while to flourish but I appreciate the connection because I loved reading that book.

BYT: Well, I guess that was the question was whether it was an inspiration for your book.

Greg Graffin: Yes. [Chuckles] In the sense that you mentioned that it was cross-disciplinary. In those ten years I also spent a lot of time reexamining evolution, and there is a lot about Consilience that I disagree with. But in terms of inspiration, I see a piece of literature like that (and hopefully like Anarchy Evolution) is to inspire more analysis and to get people jazzed about a particular topic and Consilience absolutely succeeded in doing that.

BYT: Do you find that it’s easier to get people jazzed about topics in the classroom or in a song?

Greg Graffin: That’s a good question that I go back and forth on every day, because I spend so much time on tour and I’ve got to justify it somehow in my intellectual life, because to me it wouldn’t feel right leaving my family behind. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices in my life to be able to be a performer. The way I justify it is that it is a higher calling. Part of that higher calling is that I believe that playing music can really engage larger audiences’ than lectures.

BYT: It’s a delicate balance between writing catchy songs and having a concrete message in lyrics.

Greg Graffin: That’s also another thing I deliberate on because ultimately music is a piece of art and I believe a book like Consilience or Anarchy Evolution is as much art as science. And I know the feeling of creating Anarchy Evolution was a feeling of artistic creativity just like writing a song. However a song is so exceedingly distilled into two minutes, if you are a punk rock band it could be a minute and a half. You can’t necessarily believe that people are going to feel the same way they feel reading a paragraph or reading a page, so it’s a different type of infusion.

BYT: And they put their own meaning into it as well, right?

Greg Graffin: It infuses them with a certain kind of a feeling and as an artist or as an author you just have to let go and accept that whatever that feeling is they are going to interpret that in their own way. However, I do believe that the feeling can leave them with an emptiness that needs to be filled around a particular topic.

BYT: But you never hear people recalling with sadness where they were when they were reading Midnight’s Children as opposed to when they hear a Fleetwood Mac song.

Greg Graffin: Isn’t that interesting? It’s experiential. However, I know where I was when I was reading Consilience.

BYT: And Midnight’s Children. You were on an airplane!

Greg Graffin: [laughs] You’re right that’s true, I believe that people do have that experience.

BYT: Your religious views are fairly apparent through your lyrics, through your writings and obviously there’s the band name. Would you consider yourself atheistic or agnostic?

Greg Graffin: I am atheistic. However, as I said in Anarchy Evolution, I don’t bill myself as an atheist but I am atheistic in the sense that I go though life basically with a naturalist outlook which means I create a lot of hypothesis for all kinds of things and I am happy with the null hypothesis that no gods exist.

BYT: And that was the basis of my question, is that how can you be a true atheist without actually disproving the existence of god.

Greg Graffin: Well that is one of the interesting aspects of science isn’t it? You can never actually disprove that something does not exist, because in order for proof you need some positive evidence, so you cannot prove the nonexistence of something. About all you can do is create a falsifiable hypothesis and hope that it never gets verified.

BYT: Then isn’t that the definition of agnostic?

Greg Graffin: I think that agnostic is really just a cop out and I will tell you why: it was Thomas Henry Huxley who invented the word at a time when they didn’t want to say atheist and they were really frightened of it. It actually is making a very powerful statement that I disagree with which is: an agnostic says, ‘it cannot be proven or disproven’. I disagree with that. You want to prove there is a god, one good way of doing is to show me a miracle [laughs]. If it’s repeatable, if it’s something that is inconceivable beyond the bounds of anything that we have ever observed, then at least it’s a candidate for a miracle. And if you can repeat it then maybe you can also find some evidence that gods exist. I don’t believe what Huxley says that it is neither confirmable nor deniable. It’s really a hopeless statement, saying you are an agnostic, I believe.

BYT: So you are atheistic rather than atheist.

Greg Graffin: I tend towards atheistic but I don’t want to bill myself as that since I spent great lengths in the book talking about what the implications are of flying that flag.

BYT: As someone with children, what is your view on the state of education in America?

Greg Graffin: Even as someone without children I could say it is pretty pathetic. You go to any public school in the country and you ask what’s really important the answer will be ‘math’. Music is the first to go, so they will cut it and this has been true since the 1950’s. Music has been devalued and math has been what they consider to be indicative of scientific proficiency, which is irritating to me as a scientist. And the fact that all of them have this idea of rewarding students for rote memory instead of getting them outside and making discoveries of their own? I think it’s pretty poor to be honest.

BYT: How do you instill in your children a love of science and music and things that you think are important if the education system fails to do so, or not fails but more or less is inadequate.

Greg Graffin: I provide an environment for them in which I encourage them to go outside and study nature. We go backpacking as a family. We own woods and streams and fields that we wander in, and they see me wandering in them and they know that there is something valuable about it.

BYT: Would you consider yourself a conservationist? A naturalist?

Greg Graffin: Oh definitely.

BYT: Would you consider yourself an anarchist?

Greg Graffin: Not really, the ‘anarchy’ in Anarchy Evolution is really a metaphor for punk rock. If you take the two words that define my life thus far, I spend most of my time either in anarchy meaning anarchy as the one catch-all phrase for punk rock or in evolution. So those two words together I liked as the title.

BYT: Yes, I noticed when reading the book that you went to great pains when it came to describing to your readers what evolution is, but it seems like when it came to anarchy and punk rock that the words were all almost interchangeable.

Greg Graffin: It’s a valid question, and a lot of academics consider themselves to be anarchists, but I don’t know enough about the philosophy of anarchy to consider myself one or not, so it would be disingenuous to call myself one. There’s a Chomsky element to calling yourself an anarchist, as well. He knows more about it than I do.

Greg Graffin: I will say this, however, I like anarchy as a metaphor for what is going on. I wanted to stir up those who are more scientifically inclined, because most of the popular literature about evolution is all about control. It’s about the constraints and controls on evolution, when I am trying to say that that view needs to be overturned, in a sense, as an anarchist would be interested in overturning ways of thinking that are too entrenched.

BYT: I guess that is why I would consider a conservationist even over a naturalist as someone who is working to conserve the planet, where as an anarchist would just fully let it be, let it struggle on it’s path.

Greg Graffin: Which I agree with, and part of what I talk about is a movement called restoration ecology. Where if we can recognize that we’ve messed something up we’ve got to restore it. That is different than truly conserving things without allowing nature to runs it’s course. We are sort of trying to let heal what we’ve wounded. So let’s put it this way: one of the greatest ethics that I think has been promoted in the last 150 years is the wilderness ethic, and the wilderness ethic is that we have to conserve wilderness. But what is the point of conserving it? It is to let nature take its course, in all it’s anarchic splendor. So in that case I am a conservationist and  I am conservative when it comes to land development. I think we should have extremely tight restrictions on what can be done with the land that we have set aside as wilderness. Furthermore what that view does, taking an anarchic view, what it does is it makes it clear that we are not as close as we think to understanding the causes of evolution, which therefore is even more important that we put this land aside in order that we allow it to operate on its own terms.

BYT: Have you ever thought about globalism in terms of convergent evolution that we are just a species reuniting after a short period of natural barriers between, I guess you can call them races for humans but have you ever thought of globalism in that respect?

Greg Graffin: It’s hard to talk about. You have to break down a couple of barriers before you can talk about that. One of those barriers is race and what it means to humans, but that is so politically charged that you can hardly get a conversation in about it edgewise.

BYT: Without a cup of water getting poured on your head?

Greg Graffin: Yeah, things like the E.O. Wilson incident. You have to able to have a free conversation about race. I don’t believe that races really matter, I mean when it comes down to it I am an anti-racist. Which means you can have your cultural traditions, that is great, but biologically we are one species and you better embrace that before you start embracing your cultural differences.

BYT: Which leads me to some episodes in your book that I was curious about. Early on before you looked at things from an anti=racial point of view, due to science, were there times in your band that or in your youth and in punk rock, were there times that you were, not directly but indirectly, involved with parts of punk rock that today are ‘politically’ incorrect?

Greg Graffn: Oh, I talked about it a little bit, and the things that disgusted me even back then I still consider problematic which is kind of a factionalization that grew up around punk rock.

BYT: The book seemed like in parts that were, very, today ‘politically incorrect’, that you were an observer, very close to those things but always apart from them. And it seemed like everybody in punk rock back then was, not everybody, but people were complicit in, not even complicit, you were just an observer and so it was an interesting, um, part of it, but I was kind of like really there was no part of you that was part of the shitty part of punk rock?

Greg Graffin: [laughs] Oh, so, oh really I come come off as squeaky clean?

BYT: Squeaky clean.

Greg Graffin: I disagree, there’s a good section in there where I talk about the trouble I should’ve gotten in. I mean I was injecting my friends with heroin and speed, ya know?

BYT: And I’m definitely not accusing, but you definitely come off, not squeaky, but as clean in a very unclean environment. Right?

Greg Graffin: And I also point out, I think the point of that chapter was to say things weren’t, um, things weren’t that good. I was, I was involved with these things, but no I never took drugs. I never, I was not interested in it. And um, it scared the hell out of me. I admitted that in the book, you know, that it was frightening to me. And I didn’t have a good network of people around me that I felt, I guess, what didn’t come out in the book, was that I didn’t feel like I was a part of their circle of trust so I was doing these ridiculous things, to try and gain that trust and in fact it was not healthy things I was doing.

BYT:  I guess you got lucky from being kind of on the outside of those awful parts of punk rock…

Greg Graffin: Well another thing that probably saved me from it was that every summer I went back to Wisconsin and I knew I couldn’t… my dad said really clear to me, ‘Don’t bother coming back with a tattoo’ (BYT: laughs). So I knew there were things that my family in Wisconsin and my friends in Wisconsin were not gonna approve of and that I think in a weird way, ya know, it was tough for me as a kid having to go back in forth, but it probably, now that you mention it, is what kept me…

BYT: Kind of living two alternate lives really, huh? Dr. Graffin and Mr. Hyde!

Greg Graffin: Pretty much. And trying to fit in with the people in LA, thank God for the music as I point out in the book, cause you know the drugs scared the shit out of me.

BYT: Uhh, has anyone told you that Bad Religion three-part harmony sounds a bit like the singing bust statues in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3_HcXz6YlY&feature=related

Greg Graffin: [laughs] No, I though you would say the BeeGees or Styx.

BYT: I specifically recall riding on the Haunted Mansion ride and thinking Bad Religion.

Greg Graffin: That’s where we got it from!

BYT: (Laughs) What came first? The Haunted Mansion or The Bad Religion?

Greg Graffin: Definitely Haunted Mansion, which means we probably stole it from them.

BYT: Cite that if anyone asks you.

Greg Graffin: Yup!

(Both laughing)

BYT: They’re so derivative.

Greg Graffin: Have you ever come up that escalator at the end of the Haunted Mansion? Or was it in the cemetery? If you listen very carefully it sounds like Sorrow, they’re actually saying Sorrow.

BYT: Have you actually met Chris Hitchens?

Greg Graffin: Never met him. I’ve only met Dawkins of the ‘leading atheists in the world’ and it was a biological mission. Now that there’s this cult surrounding those guys I made a conscious decision not to be a part of it when Wired Magazine did a profile on the new atheism

BYT: Sounds like a religion.

Greg Graffin: They called me and I gave them my answer about how I billed myself as a naturalist and they said “Oh that’s really cool. We’ll put you as a sideline.”

BYT: Alright. so if we were to create a magical realism-type graphic novel about the adventures of Christopher Hitchens and Salmon Rushdie road-tripping across the United States, getting into trouble, would you be okay with playing a small role as a host for the two in L.A.?

Greg Graffin: Absolutely.

BYT: Okay it’s on my list of things to do, so you’re gonna be in this graphic novel.

Greg Graffin: Okay cool. I think I would like to greet them when they reach the San Fernando Valley of Southern California and just show them the best that ‘the Valley’ has to offer, because the valley has everything. I guess if you don’t know the geography, it’s the equivalent of Reston, Virgina…

BYT: Where are you teaching now?

Greg Graffin: I’m going be teaching at Cornell now, starting in the Fall.

BYT: So you’re done with UCLA?

Greg Graffin: For the time being. I was teaching only one quarter out at UCLA, and it suited me well. But Cornell gave me this opportunity to teach evolution and that’s a class I’ve always wanted to teach, so starting in the Fall I’ll be teaching there for the next two years.

BYT: You did your Ph.D. at Cornell correct?

Greg Graffin: Yeah, so it’s big news for any Ivy League evolution students [laughs]. That about it.

BYT: Yeah, all thirty of them, they’re not reading our blog. We recently sat down with Noam Chomsky and grilled him a little bit about his obliviousness to like every aspect of modern popular culture. Except it was funny because the only pop culture he would cop to is knowing a band by the name of Bad Religion. So I guess you can say you’ve hit the big time when Noam Chomsky said he didn’t know who Lady Gaga is, but he knows who Bad Religion is, how did that happen?

Greg Graffin: [laughs] We did a spoken word thing with him and a couple songs around the time of the Gulf War, to shows what fossils we both are. His idea of pop culture comes from 1991 (chuckles) that’s like, [Chomsky voice] “Hey what about that Bad Religion…”. But that’s cool, we did that project and I think ever since then he’s known about us. He actually answered a few emails of mine to look over some stuff when I was doing my PhD.

BYT: That’s cool, do you believe that there is life on other planets?

Greg Graffin: I want to believe it, but it’s kind of like my God hypothesis.

BYT: So you’re agnostic in your alien beliefs?

Greg Graffin: No, I’m not. I’m a naturalist. I told you, I’m a profound naturalist. I wanna see more evidence before I start to tip the scales towards belief. And I think life is incredibly unique it’s very difficult to get a planet started with life, but once you do get it, if the conditions are right, uh, I think it can happen, given billions of years, not millions but billions of years…

BYT: Billions AND billions.

Greg Graffin: Yea, exactly. No I just say billions.

BYT: Aha, you know Sagan.

Greg Graffin: I LOVE Sagan, but I don’t think we need billions AND billions of years to get life started, just billions. Yet once it gets started, then the question is at what stage of the evolution in the biota are we going to be observing the planets? Just to be able to find another planet with the right conditions is the…

BYT: Yea, you probably wont see people abducted by Martian bacteria.

Greg Graffin: Microbes, no. So I think just to find that planet to find all those other solar systems with life is like to quote Sagan, ‘The proverbial needle in a haystack’.

BYT: You’re a naturalist. Favorite species?

Greg Graffin: Favorite species? Well, what if I just say homo sapiens?

BYT: Well, I can quote many of your lyrics and it will be obvious that humans are not your favorite species.

Greg Graffin: Oh that’s interesting; you think I’m a misanthrope.

BYT: As much as I am. But I learned from you. Just kidding. Alright, favorite non-human species?

Greg Graffin: Well my favorite animal is the canis lupus, which has been my favorite animal like since I was young in the thing that it continues to be. And yet, the weird thing is I’ve never owned dogs since I was a little kid. No, but all domestic breeds come from canis lupus.

BYT: Even the poodle?

Greg Graffin: Everything. Even the chihuahua. Everything comes from canis lupus, but that’s not why I like it, I think canis lupus. I was drawn to it because of its majesty in the north woods, and I loved woods. So I think that must have been a reason why I like that as an animal. Um, lets see, really you have to break it down by groups because, um, I also really love pinostrobus, the eastern white pine tree. Yea, it’s just… I don’t know why, it’s just always been my favorite..

BYT: Alright, on the opposite end of that scale, if you could eradicate any species (as a naturalist), what species would you eradicate?

Greg Graffin: That’s really tough and I know a lot of people would think, “Why don’t we get rid of mosquitoes? It would get rid of malaria, it would get rid of all these diseases”, but I think I worry desperately about tampering with the ecosystem. So I mean if you really pressed me on it, I would probably just say rattus norvegicus, which is the domestic Norway rat, which we find all over the world in populated cities. because it becomes so adapted to urban areas that I don’t think it would have any impact on the planet. But I would even be frightened to do that.

BYT: E.O. Wilson said bedbugs, so uh…

Greg Graffin: I wonder where he’s ever experienced them. Hanging out in New York motels?

BYT: Or Swedish hostels. Do you think your body of work will become heavier on the scientific side as you age or will music always play the dominant role?

Greg Graffin: No, I’ve pointed out in interviews I want to start tipping the scales more towards science and less music. That would be sweet if I could actually become like, if I could create a series of books, which is what I am trying to do, in the same vein that we created a series of albums, which all pertain to the same kind of sub genre.

BYT: What is your favorite kind of fast food meal?

Greg Graffin: Well, you caught me in transition here because I’m starting to be more careful about what I eat. You know in the past I could have just easily said a hamburger and shake. But I’m trying to cut back on, particularly calories, you know. I still believe in well rounded meals, so my favorite, nowadays… Wait oh, I can give an answer because I am such a huge fan of this… and it started about a year and a half ago Starbucks started offering oatmeal. And it’s a decent oatmeal, and it’s just plain oats, and you can add what you want to it. Every morning, you’ll find me at a Starbucks, getting oatmeal, because the benefits are so wonderful. But I always eat it, I eat good oatmeal when I am at home.

BYT: Yea, steel cut.

Greg Graffin: Yea, takes an hour to cook. Because that’s when I do my papers read my email and eat steel cut oatmeal. On the road that’s nice because that’s almost something I can get anywhere in the world.

BYT: Thanks to globalism… thanks to convergent evolution!

BYT: This is a side question but if I’m not mistaken Hockey Fan? Hockey Player?

Greg Graffn: Lets go one-step further, hockey champion! Recently my team I’ve played for for fifteen years up in Ithaca (in the Ithaca adult hockey league, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it). We have eight teams so it’s pretty big. Last week we won the championship for the fourth time in the last six years. The cup is ours once again.

BYT: You are an NHL fan, who do you think is going to win tonight, Flyers or Sabres?

Greg Graffin: From what I saw I thought the Flyers were the toughest team going in, and I just love Buffalo.  But Philadelphia was my pick to win it all, even though I don’t like them. I only hate one team more than them [Philadelphia] and that is Vancouver. And I am a Capitals fan for my friend Brian who lives here.

BYT: So your pick is the Flyers to win it all.

Greg Graffin: I don’t want them to, but you don’t want to pick the team you want because then they don’t win, well….

BYT: So you’re a betting man?

Greg Graffin: I don’t bet a lot of money, no. I don’t, I really just wanna see good games. And we watch it religiously.

BYT: Ironic choice of words!

Greg will be back in DC next week for a science policy discussion with His Excellency, Monsignor Marcelo Sànchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Science, and science adviser to Pope Benedict XVI.

Can art and religion serve as methods for governing emerging science and technology?
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
5:30 p.m.
The Betts Marvin Theatre
George Washington University
800 21st St. NW
Washington, DC 20052

This event is part of a series presented by Arizona State University to help policymakers and the public explore the societal implications of advanced technology, and the various ways we, as a society, can attempt to manage that technology. Very often, some of the best ways to manage science and technology do not derive from the governments, corporations, or associations, but rather arise organically from society itself. Art and religion stem from the mores and needs of a society and, in turn, help to shape those same mores, desires, and needs. Art and religion aid in shaping the way the public perceives, experiences, and uses science and technology, and those ideas are conveyed to decision-makers.

How powerful are these social forces in creating more tangible forms of governance like regulation and legislation? Our panelists will address this and other questions and engage with the audience for what promises to be an exciting and informative evening.
Admission is free and your RSVP to [email protected] is requested.

Greg’s book, Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God is available on Amazon.com here.