One of my fondest memories from all the atheist and humanist conferences I’ve attended involves seeing a bespectacled, middle-aged man proudly sporting a t-shirt that had a black cross on a white background, with a red slash through it and the words “BAD RELIGION” underneath. Far be it for me to jump to conclusions, but the man wearing that shirt was probably more of a Star Trek convention goer than a frequenter of punk rock shows (not to say the two are mutually exclusive). I’ll never know if he was truly a fan of the punk rock band Bad Religion or simply liked the message the shirt conveyed, but I thought of him when I started reading Greg Graffin’s new four-in-one book, Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science and Bad Religion in a World Without God.
Graffin is best known as the lead vocalist and songwriter of the influential band, Bad Religion. What is less well known is that Graffin has a PhD in Zoology from Cornell, and teaches life sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles. Though this juxtaposition of science and music may at first seem incongruous, the two have actually fed off of each other through the course of his professional career. Drawn to both the punk scene and the natural sciences in high school, his evolutionary understanding of the world helped inspire the lyrics and tone of Bad Religion, while the freedom from conformity found in the punk scene fueled a willingness to approach evolution from an iconoclastic view.
The book, cowritten with science writer Steve Olson, is a hodgepodge of thoughts and ideas. Though the goal may have been to make a fast-paced book, or to reflect the constant hum of ideas flowing through Graffin’s mind, it ends up seeming unstructured, with varied themes overlapping each other. What’s the book about? Well, it’s a memoir about the history of a rock band. It’s also an exposition on the weaknesses of natural selection. It’s a critique of the so-called new atheists as well as an explanation of his own views on faith and naturalism. And finally, it’s a description of Graffin’s views on nonconformity, creativity, and tragedy, and what that means for the human condition.
Graffin clearly has a lot to say, and any one of these topics could have been a book by itself. But instead, everything is jumbled together and you’re never quite sure where the next page will take you. You might assume, for example, that the chapter titled, “The False Idol of Natural Selection,” would focus primarily on challenging the idea of natural selection as the primary driver of traits in humans. While Graffin does this, he also delves into his experiences in the punk scene in high school that helped shape his life. You get the sense that in his mind, the connection is undoubtedly clear, but translation of that into written word is less so. For example, this chapter includes the story of Graffin being led out of his high school in handcuffs after attending a party at which a fight had broken out with kids from another party down the street. Convinced he’d be beaten up by classmates from the rival party (some of whom were on the football team), Graffin writes that his “perp walk” down the hallways of his school saved him because a rumor formed that he’d killed someone.
As for the main thrust of his argument for natural selection, using skin color as one example, he notes the common view of why some humans have more melanin than others: darker skin protects against intense sun. So lighter colored skin resulted as the ancestors of Asians and northern Europeans migrated away from equatorial regions. However, he offers a counterexample of the indigenous people of Tasmania, isolated for thousands of years, but whose skin was still as dark as their African ancestors, even though their island is about as far from the equator as Italy. He instead suggests that skin color could have more to do with sexual selection. If mates are chosen due to skin color (or any other human characteristic), that means cultural factors can end up playing more of a role than natural selection. This rings true to some degree, especially if you envision a future where humanity’s skin color is more or less brown, due to more and more people having children with those of another race.
Graffin’s divergent view on natural selection is partially due to his experiences with field research. He takes issue with his fellow researchers who spend most of their time in labs, trying to come up with theoretical frameworks to fit the evidence found in the natural world. Not that these scientists are willfully ignorant or attempting to draw false conclusions from the facts; instead, Graffin thinks that these scientists might not be as quick to apply natural selection as the filter to examine every trait being studied. In essence, as complex as natural selection is, Graffin suggests that there may be an even more complex set of interactions that are shaping traits. Knowing that some of the language used could become fodder for intelligent designers on their quixotic quest to gain legitimacy, he adds a disclaimer (which seems to be more and more the standard when scientists write books about this subject) that none of his words should actually be taken as a denial or rejection of evolution.
Graffin moves next to “The False Idol of Atheism.” Although technically an atheist, he has problems with the term, correctly recognizing atheism as “what someone is not rather than what someone is.” He favors naturalism, which is basically the same as humanism, as a better way to “build socially meaningful relations and institutions.” Graffin then repeats what has become a common, though generally unjustifiable critique of the so-called New Atheists (and the nontheistic movement as a whole). He writes, “Some of these God-haters have sought to form social groups of their own with guiding documents, gathering places (even if just on the Web), and a quasi-religious sense of community. The tacit ring of ‘come join us’ is apparent on their Web pages and in their public lectures. To me, these organizations of nonbelief can start to sound a lot like the ones they vilify.”
In essence, those of us who lack a belief in the supernatural can’t form a community? No gods equals no social life? What Graffin forgets is that the idea of people coming together in a community isn’t inherently tied to a god-belief. Certain organizational parallels with long established religious practices (life ceremonies, attending weekly or monthly events) are unavoidable. Religions have spent thousands of years tweaking ways of coming together; does it really make sense to abandon all of that? And for those nonbelievers who want a purely congregational structure, they seem content to find whatever useful insights religions have gained from trying to bring people together, while discarding the unnecessary theistic baggage. And for the rest of us who don’t need that, who cares if there are freethinkers down the street meeting in a congregation? Their ideas, not the format of their meetings, should be what concern us. (Though one concern that cannot be avoided is the use of “religion” and “religious” by congregationally organized humanists to describe themselves).
Or is Graffin’s complaint directed more at the tone coming from the Four Horsemen, who (along with P.Z. Myers charging forth on his cephalopod) are unabashed in their strong critiques of religion? Add in publicity generating advertising campaigns by “old school” organizations in the nontheistic movement and we’re suddenly all branded as “atheist proselytizers.” So what accounts for the backlash from the religious and nonreligious alike over the concerted effort by nontheists to simply be heard? Graffin himself provides a potential explanation when discussing why atheism has been so difficult for people to accept. It boils down to the influence of childhood on a person’s understanding of the world. He writes, “We all recognize that some experiences and stories from our childhood stay with us our whole lives. Their influence on our behavior is rarely scrutinized when we are older, which, I believe, is why atheism is so foreign to most people. Almost all kids are told that God is the ultimate authority.” This could explain resistance from the religious to a humanist worldview, and even explains why some nontheists end up speaking out against the louder voices in the humanist or atheist movements. Even though they lack a belief in the supernatural, they still grew up with the idea of the acceptability of religious belief and the desire not to “offend” the religious. So Graffin may have diagnosed his own reasons for being uncomfortable with humanists’ desire to be heard.
In one sense, Anarchy Evolution fits in with the broad category of New Atheist books (and though Graffin may not fully appreciate the raised voices of their authors, the marketing of his book will benefit from an association). Adding Graffin’s reflections on his band, Bad Religion, and his compelling discussions on the importance of nonconformity, the uses and benefits of creativity, and the role of tragedy in life, Anarchy Evolution is a much broader examination of the challenges, complexities, and wonder that comes with living in a world without God.