It’s obviously much easier to accept oneself, develop confidence, and take meaningful action in life when one’s own values and markers of identity are visible in others around us. This was the thinking behind the Out Campaign, which has encouraged atheists to contribute to the visibility of the nontheistic community through self-identification. This visibility is all the more important for young people, a fact clearly understood by Jessica Ahlquist, the young woman who filed a lawsuit (and created a Facebook page) in order to have an explicitly religious banner removed from Cranston West High School’s auditorium. She writes on her blog that “It seems like an impossible mission, but there are definitely things we can do to help and support [nontheistic high school students]. We can start by telling the world we exist and making sure that we are easy to contact.” Hemant Mehta adds that “It’s not just high school. A lot of college atheists are risking a lot by coming out, too. But the suggestion that Jessica offers — making ourselves publicly known — will benefit closeted atheists of any age. It’s arguably the most important bit of activism any of us can do.”
I teach at a community college with a predominantly African-American and Latino student population, and the cultural pressures faced by our freethinking students both in their communities and on our campus around the issue of religion are immense. On occasions when it seemed appropriate for me to mention my own lack of belief (usually precipitated by some unfair generalization during a class discussion), students often approached me afterwards and expressed a sense of tremendous relief simply to have a visible reflection of their own perspective. Subsequent conversations with these young men and women led me to act as faculty advisor to a new — indeed, the college’s first — club for nonreligious students, and I’ve tried to remain visible for precisely the reasons mentioned here (via email, fliers, and participation in club fairs and interfaith campus events), and I’ve also shared some faculty guides for supporting nontheistic students. This kind of mentoring and activism by example has become a vitally important part of my professional life, and I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the “value of visibility” to young people.