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Dr. Banjo Tells Secular Americans to Be True to Themselves

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Dr. Banjo, Pete WernickThough 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.

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.”

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