Springtime for Darwin

By JAMES PARKER  |  May 7, 2008

“I’ll give you humanism in 25 words,” says Greg Epstein, Harvard’s energetic humanist chaplain. It’s the week before the award ceremony, and we’re in his office in the basement of Memorial Church. Organ music floats down — a touch of celestial irony regularly remarked upon, apparently, by visitors. “Humanism,” he says slowly and emphatically, “is a progressive life stance that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability, and our responsibility, to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment aspiring to the greater good of humanity.” And why give an award to Graffin? “Because Bad Religion,” says Epstein, speeding up now, “are giving people a sense of the inspirational quality of living a humanist life! Graffin is somebody who, when he writes songs, he’s informed as a scholar, he’s informed as an intellectual. I listen to his songs and I could take notes, and yet you have big burly guys crowd-surfing to this stuff! If he has a message about evolution, that’s it — that evolution, too, is worth crowd-surfing over!”

Graffin may indeed be the only hardcore punk rocker ever to have referred to himself in a song as a humanist. Check out the one-minute-53-second didactic folk-slam “Materialist,” from 2002’s The Process of Belief: “I’m materialist, call me a humanist/I guess I’m full of doubt/So I’ll gladly have it out with you/I’m materialist/I ain’t no deist!”

Need some more Graffin-applicable nouns ending in “-ist”? Try atheist, rationalist, realist, naturalist, and — most pertinent to our discussion — evolutionary biologist. When he’s not on Bad Religion duty, Graffin teaches life sciences at UCLA. He did his PhD at Cornell, under Dr. William Provine — the same Dr. Provine cast so effectively as the Ghoul of Darwinism by the producers of Expelled (“No ultimate meaning in life, no human free will”).

Cranked out in a record-breaking three months, the title of Graffin’s dissertation was Monism, Atheism, and the Naturalist Worldview: Perspectives from Evolutionary Biology. Its thrust was simple: God or evolution — you can’t have both. Or as the Bad Religion track “Lookin’ In” puts it: “There’s no compromise/Our evolution is our demise.”

In person, there’s little dogma to Graffin. The man I meet the day after the award ceremony, at his downtown hotel, is droll, open-handed — more of a human than a humanist — his ideas operating recognizably within the same rugged economy as the music of Bad Religion. And on the no-God thing, he’s pretty hard-boiled. “There’s no need for ultimate meaning,” he tells me patiently, “because we have enough proximate meaning to keep our lives rich. We have plenty of things in the here-and-now that can keep us focused!” So how come people are religious? “A scientist who doesn’t believe in the supernatural deals with religion by saying that it came to prominence through sociobiological evolution, as a function of social groups. Now that’s highly offensive to a religious person, who says, ‘First of all, you’re saying that I have to understand evolution to understand religion. And second, you’re taking away all the important things, like the afterlife, and the soul, and the incorporeal spirit — all those meaningful things.’ So there’s really no common ground there.”

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