Blurring the boundaries: punk rock and religion

By Francis Stewart
December 3, 2012

Ever walked into a music shop? What do you find? Shelves or boxes – depending upon your predilection for large stores or small independents – which are labelled with the music ‘type’ found within. Metal, jazz, country, rock, pop, opera, classical and everything in-between. Why? On the simple premise that it makes it easier to find the type of music you want and so increase the likelihood of expenditure on your part. What is the danger of presenting music in this manner? It makes discovery much harder and exploration much less likely. You go straight to the genre you like, find what you want, have a quick look around for anything else in that genre and then head straight to the tills. Potentially missing out on undiscovered gems in other genres, classics that influenced the music you liked or even simply misfiled music.

Rock and roll has always inspired tribalism, the music genres being one manifestation of this. On a larger scale there were the mods versus the rockers, the bikers versus the hippies and the punks versus basically everything and anything! Despite its love and promotion of various notions of anarchy, punk itself is replete with labels. Terms such as crusty punk, surfer punk, skater punk, street punk, hardcore punk, 77 punk, and straight edge punk and so on are rife. Why? To delineate borders, to define identities, and to attempt to create order and control in a world which can all too easily be wrested from them by profit focused companies. What is the danger of presenting identity in this manner? It assumes that identity, behaviour and presentation is rigid and definable, it assumes a shared understanding and therefore tradition of these identity labels, it creates a necessary ‘other’ within a subculture and finally it actually results in co-option and control being easier to obtain for large companies.

Identities are not static, but fluid as cultural theorists John Storey and Dan Laughey and sociologist of religion Gordon Lynch have argued. The boundaries between cultural and/or subcultural affiliation have become significantly less rigid and defined. It is now quite common, almost expected, that individuals will merge one or more – sometimes disparate – identities within their overall sense of self. The multi-faceted sense of self and identity formation is partly a feature of the consumerist, choice based West, partly a feature of the rise in significance of the self/individual and partly as a result of globalisation.

This has forced a re-think on what do we mean, understand and intend in utilising terms such as ‘world religions’, ‘religion’, ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’. In conducting my own interviews amongst straight edge punks in the UK and the USA (2009 – 2011) the issue of what we mean by these terms was repeatedly raised, discussed in depth and featured prominently in graffiti, tattoos, flyers and band imagery.

As much as punks utilise labels they are carefully chosen and carry a deep significance. Each denotes an important political or musical derivation that enables deviance and recognition in addition to the more negative connotations outlined above. For example, surfer punk was the term attached to the punks who came from the Huntington Beach area of Orange Country and were involved with the sport. It denoted the difficulty and danger of surfing that particular area of the California coast. The ultra-aggressive stance of these punks demonstrated this new culture of physical extremism, which they rode as one would a wave. Would the same careful labelling be applied to terms and concepts such as ‘religion’?

Overwhelmingly, a sharp distinction was expressed by between ‘religion’ and ‘faith’ (UK) or ‘spirituality’ (USA). This is perhaps unsurprising given punks’ stance of rejection of tradition – both real and imagined – in favour of creating something new. ‘Religion’ was applied when interviewees were referring to traditional religious institutions, texts, authority figures and evangelising individuals. In contrast ‘faith’ and ‘spirituality’ were used to describe the individual believer(s), specific practises which did not fall under one religion or another, personal beliefs and really interestingly, punk rock itself!

Punk clubs were spoken of as sacred spaces and attendees got agitated with those whose behaviour desecrated that, in their opinion, or disrespected it. Bands, specific musicians and other individuals important to the local scenes were spoken of with reverence and defended vehemently. Punk rock itself became a form of desacralised salvation for many interviewees. A form of salvation that is essentially a secular yet sacred good that has both personal and collective benefits and ramifications. A result of refusing a strong delineation between sacred and profane, religious (or spiritual) and secular; it relies on muddying the waters so to speak, blurring the boundaries.

Naturally punks would not achieve this in isolation, it is not even a stated goal of theirs. Instead they are feeding off and into a long history in the West which Charles Taylor identifies as moving from a position of belief in a specific god being the only option to a belief in any god (or none at all) as one option among many. The individual becomes the centre rather than a divine being or a numinous spirituality. Concurrently society has continuously removed authority from the divine or the ineffable and simultaneously wrested it from the hands of the institutions that function under the auspices of the divine, placing it instead in secular institutions and communities.

Consequently religion as the interviewed punks define it – practices, rituals, authority figures and to an extent ideology, can no longer be assumed to be succinctly definable or corralled into a specific notion. Instead we now face a vast range of human practices which are overlapping and do not function as religious or secular solely or discreetly. And so much like a growing subculture or indeed music shop, we have to ask, are new labels now needed, or can we do away with labels once and for all? The punk ethos of “question everything, accept nothing” seems somewhat apt here!



Laughey, Dan: Music and Youth Culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.

Lynch, Gordon: After Religion. London: Darton-Longman-Todd, 2002.

Storey, John. An Introduction to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. Essex: Prentice Hall / Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1997.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Harvard: Belknap Press, 2007.


© Francis Stewart holds a doctorate in religious studies from the University of Stirling. His thesis was on Straight Edge punk as a surrogate for religion. He is interested in ways that traditional concepts of religion may be being dismantled and reassembled around notions of authenticity, integrity, community and the self. His current research is on religion and violence.

This article is one of a continuous series appearing on Ekklesia through our association with the Critical Religion Association (CRA), developed out of the University of Stirling Critical Religion Research Group. CRA is bringing together academics from a wide range of backgrounds to explore the way 'religion' is employed as a a marker, construct and category in public and intellectual discourse. You can also follow Critical Religion on Twitter: http://twitter.com/CriticoReligio (@CriticoReligio).

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