|Category:||Interview - Newspaper||Publish date:||3/27/2009|
|Source:||Las Vegas Review-Journal, p. 1SS, March 27, 2009||With:||Greg Graffin|
Pop culture devalues intellectualism by its very nature. You can scantly find deep thoughts in a Rihanna hit, or on People.com, or on “American Idol.” There really isn’t much intellectualism in contemporary politics or media, either. Intellectualism just doesn’t sell, or so the deciders of pop and power structures would have you believe, even though intellectualism sold quite well during various periods of the 20th century.
But in the punk rock world — stereotyped by mosh pits and grungy clothes — the longest-lasting, reigning godfathers of punk are Bad Religion (headlining “Extreme Thing” at Desert Breeze Skate Park on Saturday). And Bad Religion is nothing if not challengingly intellectual, integrating philosophy into the beauty of entertainment.
Their singer is Greg Graffin, known at UCLA as Professor Graffin, lecturer in life sciences and paleontology, and now writing a mainstream book on religion and naturalism.
In Bad Religion’s 2007 song, “New Dark Ages,” Graffin makes lyrics of serious thought, stating the anthropological notification, “We’re animals with golden rules.”
I called Graffin at his UCLA office on Thursday, particularly to discuss this one lyric, because I have posited for some time that, “We are cavemen with iPhones.” That is, the human race has not evolved or become as civilized as much as we’d like to think. Earth is rife with wars, civil wars, murder, lying, cheating, domestic beating, incest and all the other awful things that have always mucked homo sapiens. We just dress better, live longer due to soap and medicines and mass food production, and intellectuals have invented some cool gadgets to pass free time.
So my question to Graffin is sharp: If we haven’t evolved so much, if we are “animals with golden rules” or “cavemen with iPhones,” then why does he keep trying to uplift hard-to-evolve people by encouraging them to think for themselves and try to evolve better?
“If you want to be a nihilist, nobody’s stopping you,” he answers me. “But I don’t think that’s a productive way to spend your short amount of time here on the planet. I’ve never been one to throw up my arms and say, ‘Why even try?’ It doesn’t make your life any better by doing that.
“You have to recognize your place on a broader scale. You are here because of a large number of biological and geological events that took place long before you arrived on the planet. And one of your circumstances is: You’re a social animal.
“Whether you like it or not, you’re part of Homo sapiens. And our entire being is wrapped up in the fact that we’re social animals. You have to recognize you have a suite of emotions you were born with, and those emotions do best when you are participating in that social tradition.
“So I think in terms of going against that, you’re actually making your life more difficult. And you’re actually creating something that might end up harming you. It certainly will make you feel worse in the long run.”
Graffin is a naturalist, not a supernaturalist. He believes the world would be better off if society adhered to the facts and science of naturalism rather than to the blind faith of religion and the supernatural.
“As a scientist, of course, we have to believe there is no supernatural. There are only natural entities in the universe. And those are the things that we study as natural scientists.”
Graffin has a deal with a top book publisher. He’s writing about naturalism and supernaturalism in a “pop book,” or a “trade book, as opposed to an academic title,” he says.
“Hopefully, I’ll convince people you can have this naturalistic worldview,” he says. “I’m trying to champion the naturalist’s worldview and show it’s not as heathen as most religious people would make it out to be.”
One of his goals is to point out naturalism’s importance in the 21st century.
“We’re gonna have to decide if we want to be a fact-based society, or if we want to hold out for this supernaturalism — if there’s any place for it in our society. I’ll tell you what. There certainly isn’t any place for [supernaturalism] when it comes to climate change and ecological catastrophes, because those things require good decision-making based on cold hard facts, and you’re not gonna get those facts from religions.”
Las Vegas itself is an example of how Americans live their superstitions beyond religious beliefs, he says.
“As long as people believe in the supernatural, there’s always hope that there’s something in the world called luck,” he says.
“You’re writing from Las Vegas right now. Imagine how different things would be in Las Vegas if somebody came out and said, ‘Guess what, everybody, there is such a thing as luck — but we have no idea how to improve your chances.’
“There are people who are so superstitious. They do all these rituals, and they actually believe that it has something to do with their success or failure” while gambling, he says.
“I know there are people who do gambling for a living. But even those people — they want to be naturalists. They want to believe in statistics. They want to have a very rational approach to what they do. But they’re still gambling. They’re still playing these games” based on luck.
At this point in the interview, I argue that superstitions are related to people’s anthropological trait to live life in a state of fantasy. Therapists know all about how people live their lives in fantasy. Graffin understands this. But, although he wants society to disregard what he sees as the fantasy of supernatural beings, he disagrees that fantasy is necessarily bad in relationships.
“Interestingly, the one area I allow for supernaturalism in my book is in interpersonal relationships,” he says. “See, I don’t think there’s really much use for a skeptic in a relationship. You can’t constantly be asking your wife and children to prove themselves to you. In fact, I think we’ve found that families who have parents who do that are pretty messed up: ‘Keep proving your worth, goddamn it.’ Or, ‘Prove that you love me!’ These kind of things.
“So I think there is room for fantasy. And I agree with you it’s part of the human condition to have that, and it’s an important part of human relationships. But look, what goes on in the family is not what I’m talking about,” he says. “We need to make rational decisions at the SOCIETAL level.
“And I think the interrelationships between friends and family requires a lot of faith. It requires a lot of trust. And it requires a lot of things the churches try to adopt in their larger families, but I don’t think it works” in churches.
This is where I disagree with Graffin. I believe you can have faith and trust in mates, friends and family by clearing away the fantasy of who they are, seeing them for who they are (based on “real data,” not fantasy), accepting their limitations, and embracing what’s lovely about them. If Graffin wants us to hold society to a standard of measuring up to cold hard facts, why can’t we expect the same of people we let into our lives, especially since the people we let into our lives are part of the society he wants to be less fantastical?
And so, I tell Graffin that what he’s suggesting goes against the grain of much therapy. Many therapists often try to get patients to clear the fog from the lens they see the world through, so they may stop living in fantasy and approach life realistically so as to attain goals and establish more stable relationships, especially with oneself. Graffin says, yes, he’s aware of rationalism. But:
“My book has some things you don’t want to read. It’s a real challenge. Saying, ‘Life is purposeless’ is not something that most therapists want to champion. But ultimately, if you’re going to have a realistic and a healthy view of yourself, you have to acknowledge yourself in a larger context in the natural world, and you have to have some understanding of what brought you to this juncture in time, and that has to do with biology and circumstances.”
After listening to Graffin for a while, I tell him that, although it might sound like a simplification of his positions, he sounds to me like an optimist.
“Well maybe that’s the surprise in all of this,” he says. “The truth is there is a great deal of optimism if you adopt a naturalist worldview. The optimism comes when you recognize, first of all, that life is purposeless. Most people can’t get past that first proposition,” he says and laughs. “If they don’t dig any deeper [in his book], they just close the book and say, ‘This guy’s a whacko.’
Ultimately, he says, “The naturalist worldview is a good way to feel grounded and feel part of something that isn’t based on fairy tales. It’s based on observable facts in the human and in the biological history of the planet. I think that can be a source for comfort.”
Likewise, there is much optimism in his band’s music, no matter that he sings (intellectually) about a world in peril.
“Bad Religion’s tradition has always been to try and provoke people, but hopefully lead them to a better sense of who they are and what they stand for. That’s supposed to make them feel better.
“You wouldn’t believe how many times people have come up to me after a show and said … ‘Your songs are about such serious topics, and the message is sometimes so bleak, but it makes me feel so good.’ That’s kind of the most satisfying thing someone can say to me.”
Graffin himself can’t listen to a Bad Religion album as the rest of us can, as observers. He enjoys his music more on the front end.
“Usually the good feelings I get from Bad Religion music is creating new songs. To me, it’s always been an intellectual pursuit. By the way, I lump ‘artistic’ in there, so you might want to write ‘artistic/intellectual’ pursuit. I kind of don’t distinguish between the two.
“So what I’m saying is, it’s a cerebral pursuit for me, and it always has been. And the most satisfaction I get from it is when I can put some ideas together, and put a melody to it, and slowly craft a song. And that’s the most pleasure I get. And if after a crappy day, I can go do that, that’s one of the privileges of being in Bad Religion, is that I don’t have to consume the music. I get to make it. That’s the way I get an emotional kick from Bad Religion.”
- Doug Elfman
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