Bad Religion has been a going concern for 31 years, a remarkable achievement for any band, let alone one that remains devoted to the punk ideals of the late ‘70s.
At the same time, the band’s singer and co-founder, Greg Graffin, has devoted himself to academics, collecting a doctorate from Cornell University and teaching evolutionary biology at UCLA.
One would think the worlds of punk rock and science are mutually opposed, “which makes me schizophrenic,” Graffin says with a laugh. But he just published his first book, “Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science and Bad Religion in a World Without God” (Harper Collins), that argues otherwise. A simultaneously released Bad Religion album, “The Dissent of Man” (Epitaph), serves as an aural companion piece; its title riffs on Charles Darwin’s book on evolutionary theory “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.”
“I wanted to resolve that seeming schizophrenia in my own mind, to see if I could bring the two together,” Graffin says of diving into a project that bridges the gap between being a selfdescribed naturalist and a punk rocker.
“Early in my college career, I always took classes that focused on the outdoors, observing nature firsthand,” says Graffin, who was born in Racine, Wis., grew up in Southern California, and splits his time between the West Coast and Ithaca, N.Y.
“My professors were focused on the students’ getting out there and making discoveries on our own. They would say the reason we were doing this is to overturn the currently held view. They were encouraging this attitude of not trying to verify what was in our textbooks but of being skeptical and proving it to ourselves. That was very appealing to me, because the essence of punk was to challenge authority, not as a way of destroying things, but as a way of making them better.”
Graffin and bassist Jay Bentley were 15 and guitarist Brett Gurewitz 17 when they started Bad Religion while still in high school in the San Fernando Valley of California. They were outcasts fired up by the new punk wave, particularly the Adolescents and the Buzzcocks, and they burned with ambition to make their own mark.
“From the earliest get-go, I thought we were joining a theme already in progress, a creative theme,” Graffin says. “I didn’t realize at the time how young and nascent that scene was. We weren’t inventing anything, except I did tell myself at a young age that I wanted to embody something unique. I knew that wouldn’t be from fashion. I had no money to buy cool clothes. I knew it wasn’t going to be because of our good looks (laughs). I thought maybe I could offer a style of punk that was focused on relevant, topical material. I wanted intelligent dialogue with anyone who would listen to our music.”
Bad Religion created their own niche: Even before he was plowing into his multiple college degrees, Graffin was packing his lyrics with multisyllabic words that addressed everything from latchkey-kid autobiography to commentary on politics, religion and culture. Despite the heavy subject matter, the music was rich in fast, bracing, guitar-driven melody and anthemic harmony vocals. At its best, Bad Religion’s music felt exultant even as it demanded that listeners accept nothing at face value.
The band also created its own label, Epitaph, to release its music, a home-grown business that grew into a powerhouse under Gurewitz’s direction, with bands such as the Offspring, Rancid and NOFX.
Bad Religion’s 1988 album, “Suffer,” sparked a resurgence in Southern California punk, and six years later led to the band’s best-selling album, “Stranger Than Fiction,” which spawned the alternative-rock hits “Infected” and a rerecorded version of “21st Century Digital Boy.”
The band’s influence outgained its own modest commercial success, but the quintet’s reputation remains impregnable, in part because it keeps releasing solid albums such as “The Dissent of Man” that expand its reach without abandoning its high standards. Along the way the band has tried to live by the worldview so eloquently expressed by Graffin in his book’s final chapter: “There is no greater hope for an afterlife than being remembered by the people you touched, the things you did, and the labor you shared.”
Graffin understands that his viewpoints are hardly mainstream when it comes to matters of religion and faith; he prefers to call his worldview naturalism — grounded in science — rather than atheism. He focuses “less on God or whether there even is a God, and more on the dynamics of living things on the planet.”
Yet the band has encountered little hostility from people of faith, he says.
“When the headlines in this country were dominated by stories of religious fanaticism and the strong rise of religious intolerance, those were precisely the moments we would get the most support from Christian fans,” Graffin says. “Bad Religion has been embraced by Christian fans. I’m not sure I understand exactly why, but I think it’s because we raise thoughtful, important points that they too are struggling with, and we are not fundamentalists about it. If there is more dialogue about things that concern us as human beings, that can’t be a bad thing.”