BAD RELIGION - an encounter with a humanist punk professor

Punk rock and Darwin are important elements in Greg Graffin's life. The picture is taken backstage after Bad Religion's concert at Hovefestivalen this summer.

BAD RELIGION - an encounter with a humanist punk professor

#- Punk and humanism are two sides of the same coin. Fritanke.no has talked to Greg Graffin, biology professor and lead singer of the punk band Bad Re...

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08.10.2008 kl 14:56

- Punk and humanism are two sides of the same coin. Fritanke.no has talked to Greg Graffin, biology professor and lead singer of the punk band Bad Religion. Earlier this year he was awarded a humanist prize in the U.S.

Text and photo: Even Gran
Published: October 08, 2008

Undoubtedly, the music was hard core punk. The drummer using his sticks as quickly as humanly possible, matching the quick stringing of the guitars. However, it was the melodies that set them apart from the other punk bands. The unique sound. If the songs had been stripped down and played in slow versions, they would have graced any folk song festival. And the lead singer hit each note perfectly. And we actually understood the lyrics.

"Change of ideas, change of ideas, what we need now is a change of ideas" was what Greg Graffin recited to us at a local record shop in Trondheim one memorable Saturday morning in the early nineties. This was something new. Something we had never heard before. The three classical Bad Religion albums, No Control, Suffer and Against the Grain was quickly included in the CD- collection.

Always a humanist band
More than 15 years later I am talking to Greg Graffin on the phone from the U.S. The reason is that Bad Religion's lead singer has won the prize "Outstanding Lifetime Achievement in Cultural Humanism" which is awarded annually by The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. Last year the writer Salman Rushdie received the prize.

- Of course it is a great honor to receive this prize, the Bad Religion lead singer says to Fritanke.no.

Graffin tells us that he has got a lot of publicity because of the award.

- Suddenly, now quite a few clever people know what I am doing, and they did not know this before. Of course, I appreciate that very much.

Graffin lets us know that, strictly speaking, Bad Religion has always been a humanist band, although in a somewhat disorganised way.

- I must admit that I didn't know about the organised humanist movement until I was awarded this prize. But it's perfect. I have always been a humanist. My whole life and my education have been aimed in this direction, he says.

- Will you try your hand as an active humanist in the future?

- No, I do not think so. Bad Religion has always been my most important humanist commitment, and will continue to be so. In addition to my work as a biology professor at the university, of course.

Punk and humanism - two sides of the same coin

In Graffin's opinion there is an interesting connection between punk and humanism.

- Some punks were nihilists, and didn't care about anything. We were never there. Bad Religion's music has always been about tackling an untenable situation and doing something about it. Make a decision and raise your consciousness. We want to provoke people into thinking on their own. In all our lyrics you will find a strong trend toward sympathy. To make a decision and fight intolerance. For me punk is about a community of people who are tired of passive and accepted truths and want to do something about it. This is also precisely what the humanist movement is about, and that is why I think that humanism and punk definitely are connected, Graffin states.

However, he has a piece of advice to organised humanists.

- In the U.S. few people are aware of the environment challenges. They just continue as if the problem does not exist. I would like to see that the humanist movement did care a little more about how we should act in order to enable future generations to continue living on this earth, as well, he says.

- What is the origin of the aggressive, anti- religious name of your band?
Is "religion" really that "bad"?

- We hit upon the band name when we were teenagers. Religion was thrown at us from the TV screens. When I grew up in Southern California, the conservative Christian right-wing had a number of TV channels humming and buzzing at all times. This was a fitting target for a punk band. Remember that we were just a group of snotty kids who wanted to provoke, says Graffin.

But people did not get as angry as the bunch of kids had thought or hoped for.

- No, at that time we did hope for stronger reactions. Nevertheless, I think that our band name and the logo with an overlined Christian cross have served as good symbols for the band and what we stand for.

- In what way?

- The overlined cross logo should preferably be compared to a crossed out P. This means No Parking. In the same way our logo indicates that this is not a good place for religion. Take your religion somewhere else. I do not think that this is very aggressive, really. Gradually, the band name has even become a good metaphor because to be following a band is really a "bad religion". Thus, the band name is in many ways a message to the fans. It is bad religion to follow us.

First and foremost a naturalist

Greg Graffin prefers to define himself as a naturalist. He thinks that this is more appropriate than the term atheist.

- Being a naturalist is about how you relate to reality. In the opinion of a naturalist there is only one reality, and that is the one we live in and are able to observe. Everything else must be rejected until it is possible to prove or verify that it fits in with this one specific reality. If your attitude with regard to reality can be defined in this way, atheism comes naturally. You will not find a naturalist who also believes in the existence of a God, states Graffin. He adds that, actually, naturalists are not concerned with God, and it is important not to focus too much on this aspect.

- Naturalists prefer to study nature and find answers, he says.

- What about people who think that God is only an undiscovered part of nature?

- I consider this to be a strange point of view. How can you know that you are talking about "God" when it has not yet been discovered? In my understanding "God" is only another word for insecurity. Everything that has not been revealed is called "God". I think this is meaningless. In the past we did not know what the moon was. Then it was "God". Now we have understood the actual facts. Then it is the moon. If we invent a "God", how will we get the inspiration to make new discoveries? We have to admit that there are lots of undisclosed facts out there; we just have to try to extend our knowledge. Now a new particle accelerator is being started by CERN in Switzerland. It will be exciting to follow this work. But they are not looking for "God". When they start the accelerator, they do not know what they will find. They just have to start the operation and wait excitedly for the results.

- What do you think of the widely mentioned new atheism fronted by people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens?

- I do not criticise people who write books. For a long time there has been a shortage of this type of books. Actually, the U.S. is a very secular country, but we have a very loud-mouthed and overpowering minority with considerable influence. An example: It is problematic to state in public that you are an atheist, because you risk being censored by this loud-mouthed minority and be shut out or excluded on different occasions. The books of the new atheists hit a nerve with the people who feel estranged in this society. They are well written and make good starting points for discussion, says Graffin.

He adds that this really is not his favorite subject.

- A number of scientists have reflected more thoroughly than me on this matter. For a naturalist, like myself, God is really a non- subject.

Graffin thinks that the problem in the U.S. is that people do not have sufficient knowledge of the explanatory prowess of science.

- The average American does not know much about science. It is easy to believe in creationism when you are ignorant. It is uncomplicated to believe that something has been made by a conscious "creator". This fits with the world around us. Most things have been created by somebody. But with just a small amount of additional knowledge, this claim is quickly abandoned by most.

"A full- blown realist"

Graffin writes the majority of the lyrics of Bad Religion. When Fritanke.no asks him which of his songs most clearly voice a humanist life stance, he draws attention to the song Materialist from the album The Process of Belief (2002).

Here Graffin maintains i.a. that "I'm a materialist, a full- blown realist (- ) call me a humanist (- ) I ain't no deist. It's there for all to see, so don't talk of hidden mysteries with me".

- This is one of our most well- known and popular songs and here I try, in a way, to define my point of view. Being a materialist is to state that only this single material reality, is the one that actually exists. And that science, in fact, often can find the answers to what we consider to be "mysteries".

- What other Bad Religion lyrics do you feel convey a humanist life stance?

- There are many, but on the last album we have a song called Atheist Peace. It is about religion not entailing a friendly solution of anything, and maybe we would have had more peace without a belief in God. Of course, we use a lot of irony in our lyrics. In the song The New Dark Ages from the last album, we attack the conservative Christian right-wing which is only concerned with dying in order to get to a better place. The lyrics are attempts to get the message through with a wink and a smile. Furthermore, we have the song Live Again from The Empire strikes first (2004) which is about how stupid it is to make a lot of sacrifices in this life to have a chance to live again.

Graffin maintains that he tries to write contemporary lyrics.

- The last album includes a song called Grains of Wrath. The title refers to the famous book by John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath, and takes its theme from the famine problems in the third world, caused by farmers growing biodiesel fuel for cars in the Western world instead of food for their own people.

- Does it have any effect? Does your music and lyrics make people more conscious of what is going on in the world?

- First and foremost, I think that people want the release of energy that punk provides. We cannot expect that everybody understands the contents of the lyrics. Yet, I think that we have some influence. You can never know what people grasp, but the intention is to give them food for thought. Maybe they go humming a line or two in a song and then the message gradually gets through. But, generally, I do not like to be too direct in the lyrics. I would rather try to raise people's consciousness and reveal the flaws in their thinking, making them understand on their own that something does not add up.

- Do you often meet people who tell you that they have been influenced by your lyrics?

- Sometimes people say that my lyrics and the fact that I am a University professor has made them start an education. This is very nice, even if I really think that it has been a very modest influence, at the most. It is probably a combination of family background and several other factors. Of course, I talk to a number of fans who have never been near a university and I have interesting discussions with these people as well.

Two important stages

Thus, it is not only as a punk singer Graffin performs on a stage. When he is not touring with Bad Religion, he works as a professor in evolutionary biology at the University of Los Angeles. He admits that several similar communication tricks are useful, irrespective of his profession as a punk singer or a university professor.

- Both arenas require a good melody, making people remember and digest and maybe, gradually, manage to think for themselves. In many ways, I am performing on a stage in both workplaces, and I find it productive to define these as two related elements, and not look at the differences. However, the big "contrast" between my roles as a punk singer or a University professor often forms the basis for interviews, says Graffin.

- Do many students attend your lectures because they know that you are the Bad Religion lead singer?

- I don't think so. Somebody, maybe, but not as far as I know. My lectures are very traditional. The course is important to the students. It is difficult to get in, and tuition fees are substantial. So, I think that they study at UCLA for other reasons than my being a punk singer. But a lot of them know about it. But they don't talk much about it, really.

- So there are no young teenagers with acne following your lectures from the back benches?

- I don't think so. But everybody is welcome. If a teenager wants to listen to my lectures, that's quite OK, smiles Graffin.

Exhausting tours

Behind the stage at the Hove Festival the atmosphere is hectic. Fritanke.no has an appointment with Graffin 30 minutes before the concert, but Graffin is nowhere to be seen. One by one the other band members appear, but the leader is missing. Frustration all over. "Where the hell is Graff" asks the resigned drummer, waving his hands.

Then, five minutes late, the main character gets there, a little tired, directly from the hotel. He shakes hands with Fritanke.no, and we agree on a photo session after the concert.

- We had a really tiring journey up here from Germany, with a bus through Denmark and then on the ferry. And tomorrow we are on the move again, explains Graffin later as the camera is clicking. Behind us, the band is already in the bus, waiting to be driven to Gothenburg and the "West Coast Riot" Festival where they will perform the next day.

However, Graffin was not that tired. All his fans who had gathered at Hove were more than satisfied. And he did find time for a little joke about the church burnings of the Norwegian black metal-scene during the nineties:

- I did notice that somebody had lit a fire here at the festival area. You must be careful, because on the road down here I spotted a church, commented Graffin to a packed Amfiscene at Hove.

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Se bildet større

Packed attendance when Bad Religion played at the Hove Festival close to Arendal, Norway, in June.

Se bildet større

- One of the most famous and influential punk bands in the U.S.

Se bildet større

- The overlined cross logo should preferably be compared to a crossed out P. This means No Parking. In the same way our logo indicates that this is not a good place for religion, says Graffin.

Se bildet større

Bad Religion has always tried to raise people's consciousness with their lyrics.

Se bildet større

- The difference between being a punk singer and lecturing in biology is not as big as some people think, says Graffin.

Faktaboks

- Has been active for almost 30 years and produced 14 albums.

- Was started in Southern California in 1980 by Greg Graffin and Brett Gurewitz, Jay Bentley and Jay Ziskrout.

- Has often been commended for the revitalisation of the American punk scene at the end of the eighties with the albums Suffer (1988) and No Control (1989). Important role models for bands like Green Day, NOFX, Offspring and Rancid.

- Frequent releases through the nineties up to today. Their last three albums, Process of Belief (2002), The Empire Strikes First (2004) and New Maps of Hell (2007) are often classified as a return to the fast and fierce style from the end of the eighties.

- For me punk is about a community of people who are tired of passive and accepted truths and want to do something about it. This is also precisely what the humanist movement is about.

Greg Graffin

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