Into the Fold of Humanism

Photo by Lisa JohnsonGreg Graffin - Photograph by Lisa Johnson

Greg Graffin is the lead vocalist and songwriter for the punk rock band Bad Religion, which formed in 1979 when its members were still in high school. Bad Religion has sold over five million albums worldwide and is considered one of the best-selling punk rock bands of all time. Graffin, who identifies as a naturalist, studied anthropology and geology at the University of California Los Angeles (where he later taught courses in life science and paleontology) and obtained a PhD in zoology from Cornell University, where he teaches courses in evolution. Graffin is the coauthor, with Preston Jones, of Is Belief in God Good, Bad or Irrelevant? A Professor and Punk Rocker Discuss Science, Religion, Naturalism & Christianity (2006) and, with Steve Olson, of Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World without God (2010). In 2012 Graffin and his Bad Religion bandmates headlined the Reason Rally in Washington, DC.

The following is adapted from Graffin’s June 6, 2014, speech and Q&A in acceptance of the Humanist Arts Award at the American Humanist Association Annual Conference in Philadelphia, PA. In presenting the award, activist Todd Stiefel (Stiefel Freethought Foundation) referred to Graffin as a polymath and fondly recalled slam dancing with his kids backstage at the Reason Rally during Bad Religion’s performance.

WELL, WHAT CAN I SAY? That’s the first time I’ve been called a polymath, and it doesn’t feel very good. All the people before me who have been called polymaths are people I really look up to. People like Vladimir Nabokov, Carl Sagan, and Albert Einstein. I stand before all of you and very humbly thank you for inviting me into your circle of humanism. But, I feel those polymaths are something greater than me.

I have, as Todd nicely pointed out, committed my life to both the arts and the sciences. I took it seriously when I went to college and found that they lump the arts and sciences under one banner. And then I started realizing that most of the programs that are set up at universities don’t really encourage the kind of conversation between the arts and sciences that should be encouraged. But hopefully, in the way I’ve lived my life and the few plans I have for the future, I’ll continue to bridge that gap. And the way I’ve done it is highly unlikely. I could never have predicted that I would be standing before you as a punk rock singer and a lecturer at Cornell University. But that’s the way these things happen and I can only say that I really do appreciate this; it means a lot to me that you feel I’m worthy of being accepted into the fold of humanism. It’s a title I think I can embody, but it’s also a spirit I think I can contribute to.



Q: I attended the Reason Rally and was part of probably the first and only humanist mosh pit that has ever existed in history. Can you talk about how you got into playing at the Reason Rally and how that was for you?

Greg Graffin: Bad Religion plays a lot of large festivals but none of them were quite as special as that day. I think we felt that it was the beginning of a musical adventure that hopefully will continue. Because while we spent most of our lives talking about the pitfalls of religion, we never were like so many heavy metal and punk bands that did it in a hateful way. I’d say we did it on a more cerebral level, which probably turned off a lot of people, quite frankly, because they just wanted to slam dance. But to us it was always about the lyrics—they had to be  artful, but they also had to be meaningful. We always sought to criticize religion in a thoughtful way and an interesting way, not in a hateful way. And I think the Reason Rally embodied that reasonable approach to forming a political movement or a government based on reason instead of sloganism, or hatred, or exclusion, or all the division that we’re so used to seeing now. So, to answer your question, it did feel special being a part of it. And I was really glad to have my family there. It really felt like a unique moment in time that hopefully we can do again.

Q: My apologies for this pun, but as a rock star and a professor of paleontology have you ever had the chance to integrate music with education?

Greg Graffin: I get asked this question a lot. The other frequent question is along the lines of, “Do your students freak out because you’re a rock star?” The truth is, hardly any of them even care about Bad Religion. I taught at UCLA, which is our own backyard; the band grew up in Los Angeles and that’s still our biggest market. But the truth is that these were biologists and they wanted to learn about biology. And so music and science don’t really go together in the conventional ways.

I still say there’s not a decent song out there written about science. And I’m not interested in trying it because I don’t think that the conventional forms of pop music lend themselves. We’ve used science as a metaphor. I think all art demands metaphor. And in order to do good art you’ve got to be able to incorporate metaphors in an interesting way. But most of the people who try to integrate science and music come up with rhyming couplets that are so boring and silly that they belong at the annual convention for the Geological Society of America, but they don’t exactly work in serious contemporary music. So, I haven’t tried it and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be successful at it. But I try to embody both of those elements, science and art, in the songs that I write. And I think people who have spent time learning about Bad Religion and listening can see the connections without them being overt.

Q: I was wondering what advice you have for future scientists who are also interested in bridging the gap between the humanities and sciences. So, whether it’s activism or rock music, what do you think we can do as a future generation to help bridge that gap between the two disciplines?

Greg Graffin: It’s very tough, and I do feel for you because most students in science and most young scientists find it very hard to bridge that gap. They are basically told that they are going to be punished if they stray too far from a specialization. As you know, the careers in science are few and far between, but the most successful scientists are those who can specialize in something and create something unique. And by that I mean a research agenda that their lab specializes in that none of the other labs specialize in. And what that means is they discourage the kind of cross-talk that we’re talking about.

Q: You’ve talked about metaphor before, both tonight and previously, as an essential element to music. Do you have a particular metaphor you’ve used in your songs that you’re particularly proud of or that sticks out to you?

Greg Graffin: This is really challenging. We have 320-some songs that we’ve published and you’re asking for a particular favorite, I believe. Our most famous song, written by my co-writer Brett [Gurewitz], is “Sorrow.” Without getting too specific, the lyrics in that song say, “When all soldiers lay their weapons down, and kings and queens relinquish their crowns.” Essentially that’s the time when “there will be sorrow no more.” In a sense we’re saying that sorrow is part of human experience. And instead of running away from it, or pretending (as so many bands and songwriters do) that sorrow doesn’t exist or that you can bury it, we have to acknowledge that it’s part of our existence and we have to generate some level of empathy for others who are experiencing sorrow. It may not be my favorite of all the songs, but I think it’s particularly appropriate for this gathering tonight. So thanks again, I really appreciate it, and see you next time.