Bluegrass Star Dr. Banjo Tells Secular Americans to Be True to Themselves

For Immediate Release: April 21, 2016
Contact: Paul Fidalgo, Communications Director - (207) 358-9785


Though he thrives in a musical genre in which religious hymns are commonly on the setlist, Pete Wernick — better known as “Dr. Banjo” — says many of the beliefs in hymns he loves to sing don’t seem plausible to him. In a new video, Wernick tells a personal story that is both inspiring and moving, as he joins the voices of the Openly Secular campaign. Watch his short video here:

Openly Secular is a campaign designed to eliminate discrimination and increase acceptance of atheists, freethinkers, agnostics, humanists and other nonreligious people, by encouraging secular people to be open about their beliefs. Celebrities who have spoken on behalf of the campaign include NFL star Arian Foster, former congressman Barney Frank, actress Julia Sweeney, rapper Killah Priest, actor John de Lancie, and former NFL player Chris Kluwe. 

An internationally renowned banjoist whose musical collaborators have included comedy legend Steve Martin and the late bluegrass icon Earl Scruggs, Wernick says that belief in an “invisible father figure” had become implausible for him as a teenager, but that he fully understands how many people can rely on their faith to “marshal their forces and deal with life’s blows and losses and uncertainties.” 

Wernick was one of the survivors of a terrible plane crash in 1989 which killed 111 people. When others ascribed his survival to the intervention of God, he said “That didn’t wash very well for me,” when so many children and other innocent people did not get the benefit of God’s help. “It was very hard to talk about that,” he says.

Frequently working with fellow musicians in the bluegrass community who are devoutly religious, Wernick says he doesn’t seek to challenge their beliefs, and has at times found it “intimidating” to be honest about his own lack of belief. 

“We are actually a large and growing group,” Wernick says of secular Americans, “but we are so often silent for fear of unsettling other people.” Wernick knows from personal experience how hard it can be to “come out” as nonreligious, but advises, “Whatever risk is involved, sharing something that’s true about yourself is at least an honest act that can bring you closer to others.”


Openly Secular is a project of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science in partnership with the Center for Inquiry, as well as the Secular Coalition for America, the Secular Student Alliance, and the Stiefel Freethought Foundation.

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The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at