Adventure and Discovery: An Academic Discussion With Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin

PopMatters talks with Bad Religion's Greg Graffin about his new book The Population Wars, his life as a Doctorate-holding punk singer, enlightenment, society, music, and science.

Greg Graffin, Ph.D. is probably best known (depending on the circles in which you run) as the lead singer of the punk rock band Bad Religion. Fans of the always political and occasionally incendiary band find no dichotomy in the concept of one of punk’s defining voices also lecturing, teaching classes and writing books of academia. As Graffin puts it in his latest such book, The Population Wars, “I achieved early success as a songwriter, singer, and front man of Bad Religion. But somehow I never believed that it would last. So I remained committed to an intellectual pursuit of blending music with more ‘mainstream’ academic work at universities.”

Bad Religion obviously did last and founding member Graffin, as the only constant performer in the band, has been through every era, through all of the ups and downs. It’s easy to see with such a worldview how academia has influenced Graffin’s lyrics and how the passion of punk has likewise influenced Graffin’s scientific pursuits. As he states in The Population Wars. “I find a lot of parallels in science and music and I’ve dedicated my life to studying and practicing both.”

I recently met with Graffin to discuss exactly that, both science and music against the backdrop of The Population Wars. Graffin is, after all, both a punk singer and a Ph.D. in one and talking to the man himself shows how both sides are bountifully represented.

“To me it’s all one life and it’s a life that’s been full of events and all kinds of privileges.” Graffin told me.

“I consider it a privilege to be able to do all these other things and to me it feels just like an extension of my role as a punk singer because my punk singing has never been about my aggrandizing of my reputation or making my ego bigger, it’s always been about trying to engage in a serious social discussion and trying to push the limits of enlightenment. Hopefully make a more enlightened society. So these other outlets, I think, are just other ways to do that.”

The motivation for Graffin’s quests for a more enlightened society come, in part, as an evolution of the punk rock singing that made him famous. Having started Bad Religion at age fifteen, it’s easy to imagine the music taking a front seat and the anger of the genre motivating Graffin to both scream and grow intellectually.

“To me it’s not ‘anger’ but ‘concern’,” Graffin explains. “I see those as two different things. Someone, for instance, who is passionately concerned about the environment, might come across as just unwilling to compromise and angry. But the truth is I’ve always been passionate about these things that I write about, only in the spirit of raising awareness and trying to get people to engage in a more fruitful discussion. Hopefully a social discussion.”

Graffin elaborates on the difference between anger and concern:

“The difficulty here is the punk genre is sort of renowned for being angry. But Bad Religion, I think, if you look at our long history, we’ve sort of circumvented that by instead talking about social issues and political issues and philosophical issues with the interest of trying to improve the dialogue. So part of it is just the genre and the genre being a genre of anger is kind of the “punk” thing to do, so in keeping with that concept, that’s why I write these books that I write as well because I’m always trying to challenge the status quo.”

This passion can be seen in Bad Religion’s video for “Los Angeles is Burning” (among others). Graffin initially plays a devilish newscaster getting off on the ratings extravaganza that takes place “when the hills of Los Angeles are burning”, but soon that same news man is overcome with fear of his own as the fires engulf even him. Graffin explains that “LA is thought of the established media center… you know, we have so much power to reach so many people in the entertainment world and I didn’t see a lot of passion exhibited when we essentially aggressively invaded Iraq. [Guitarist] Brett [Gurewitz] wrote that song about our community and how, in that sense the burning hills was an analogy to the seething resentment of most people in the media.”

Those are the words and motivations of Bad Religion. Graffin’s own words in his third book are no less bold or subversive than a punk rock song but sound a bit more like the kind of thing Carl Sagan might say. It’s hard not to imagine Graffin co-hosting Cosmos as one reads The Population Wars.

This comparison is both meant as and was taken as, a high compliment. “Carl Sagan is like a hero of mine,” Graffin says. “He typifies the type of scientist who likes to engage with the public, not just speak to other scientists. Of course, as I point out in the book, if science is going to mean anything in this society, we’ve got to find a way to communicate it to the public and you’ve got to get the public on board with these very important topics. Otherwise, what good is having the right answer if you can’t do anything with it?”

Perhaps a punk rock singer-cum-professor is exactly the sort of populist such very important topics need for dissemination. The Population Wars does touch upon Graffin’s career as a musician (it might be a sinful omission not to) but this is hardly a “Bad Religion Book”. Instead, The Population Wars is, like Graffin’s other written works and academic lectures, a book of biology, zoology and the human side of those things — sociology.

“The thing that drives home the loudest about The Population Wars is that I’m trying to sort of present a world view.” Graffin says. “It’s basically a take on how we view our existence in that respect. My last book, Anarchy Evolution was a world view presented about religion and its conflicts with science and this one is also from an evolutionary perspective. A perspective on ecology and how populations get along with one another and convincingly we have explained that world view with respect to competition and annihilation and warfare.”

Graffin isn’t afraid to ruffle some feathers as he delivers these treatises. “What I’m trying to say is ‘Hold it a minute. There’s just as much reason to believe that coexistence depends on cooperation and assimilation of populations.’ So that will rub some people the wrong way because they want to believe that everything is gained through competition.”

These topics are not academic only for Graffin. In many cases the ideas discussed in this and his previous books are both personal and timely.

As we discussed the potential reconciliation of the oft-considered opposites of evolution and religion, Graffin’s voice went from relaxed and confident to sorrowful. “It’s a very appropriate question because just this week [on 1 September 2015] my dear friend and advisor William Provine passed away.” Graffin tells me. “He was a proponent of the idea that religion and evolution are mutually exclusive and as you know I’ve written on the topic, mostly because of his inspiration. He was my advisor for my Ph.D.”

Further raising the personal nature of these questions, Graffin, a naturalist and non-believer in religion, cites his own family: “My in-laws and my wife are Catholics and so there are active questions in our family about these topics.” he says.

The scientist maintains a logical and intellectual inspection of that question. While hardly one to worry much about offending people, Graffin’s words are well-chosen. “You have to pardon my splitting the world into two, but I see there’s a social aspect of this question as well as an intellectual aspect to this question,” he says. “If we want to have an intellectually satisfying world view, we have to acknowledge the mutual exclusivity of those two fields, those two worlds. However, socially, who is to say which is more important?”

Graffin, at this point, is fully in the job of the professor, a role that, in fact, makes up half his career. He is scientific, questioning, philosophical, and confident in his research. “Socially there are plenty of people who are Christians and still believe in evolution. But I think they reach a point; if you want an intellectually satisfying answer or an intellectually satisfying world view, you have to come to terms with the most difficult thing and that is the creation, particularly, of Homo sapiens, and how that can be explained as an act of God as opposed to a purely natural event.”

Graffin states his own beliefs on the subject: “I’m of the school that believes that we should, in fact, try to have a world view that is intellectually as well as morally satisfying. Philosophers are trying to sort that out right now.” He is quick to add that “certainly there’s absolutely no call for demeaning people who have that worldview of compatibility between religion and evolution. That is the predominant worldview of most enlightened people on the planet, so it doesn’t do any good to try and put those people down.”

This balanced approach may not sound quite like the lyricist of an “angry genre” like punk, even for a band as intelligent and well-informed as they are passionate, like Bad Religion. Then again, Graffin is both a punk rock singer and a scientist. If he were to push every theory and hypothesis into his lyrics, where would the need to write scientific books arise?

Graffin continues to teach, lecture and write, just as Bad Religion shows no signs of hanging up their instruments any time soon. Even though there is no true “oxymoron” in being a “punk professor”, does Graffin find that his classes and lectures are attended mostly by Bad Religion fans who raise their hands to talk about music and autographs as opposed to science? Graffin says no.

“To be honest with you, it’s remarkable at the campuses that I’ve lectured at how few people are really interested in the celebrity at all, which makes me happy, because they’re really there to talk about the issues and they’re there to learn something. That, I think, is very satisfying to me because ultimately I want to be seen as someone you can talk to, someone you can converse with and I believe we’ll get farther in that quest to make an enlightened society if people have mutual respect for what’s being said.”

In some ways, there is very little more “punk” than that. Just as Graffin has turned expectations upside down, so, too, have many students, enjoying the subversive rock and staying true to scientific academia.

After all, Graffin is the front man of the band who has released albums entitled both Into the Unknown and Back to the Known. This forced me to go a bit outside of the expected once again and remind the good doctor of a quote by none other than Alice Cooper (not exactly a punk rocker himself). “Rock and roll should corrupt kids enough to think. There’s nothing wrong with thinking.”

Graffin laughs and agrees. “Exactly! There you go. That’s exactly the Bad Religion ethos!” So, Graffin has a little something in common with Alice Cooper, then? Graffin continues to laugh and says “Certain things.” Or, at least, that one quote, true such that it is.

Graffin is now 50 years old and the band he is best known for fronting has spanned no less than 35 years of his life. This unique and powerful voice of punk now wears black, plastic-rimmed glasses and distinguished receding and greying hair, often with collared shirts, sweaters, and blazers. In short, these days he may look a bit more like your college professor (which he may well be for many of you) than a favorite punk rock icon (which, of course, he still is).

With so many years as an both a Ph.D. and singer songwriter who has released such seemingly opposite albums as the aforementioned progressive rock album Into the Unknown and its punk follow up EP Back to the Known, that has gone through eras of radio hits, major labels, and comparative underground work, not to mention consistent time off for family and academia, does Graffin look back on any era of his life as a misstep? Talking about some of these things, the singer laughs and says “that can be chalked up to youthful experimentation,” but he remains proud of his work on both sides of the microphone.

“I don’t look at any of my past lives as missteps. All of those experiences brought me to where I am today and I’m very satisfied,” Graffin muses. “I think that whatever we’ve looked at as great success has to be tempered by the things that weren’t so successful and so to me it’s like, you have to be satisfied with your past.” Just as his philosophies are balanced, so is his view of his history. “That doesn’t mean that I haven’t made mistakes,” he says.

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but you can’t dwell on mistakes because life is about an adventure. It’s about discovery. And you learn from your mistakes so unless you’re completely shut down to improving your life, I believe you can continue learning until you’re very, very old. You have to look at those past missteps as learning experiences.”

In short, never stop learning! Is there a better attitude for any professor, or any intelligent punk rock lyricist for that matter? Once again, the Ph.D./singer, Gregory Walter Graffin has shown that while there are mutually exclusive opposites in this world, there are always exceptions.