Whenever I wander a few blocks from the newsroom, a pleasant young activist wearing environmentalist gear will approach me and politely inquire as to whether I "have a few minutes to spare for the environment."
No is invariably the answer, though I don't find the request objectionable, only mildly irritating. Everyone has the right to proselytize, after all, to try to convince others that their moral, religious, economic, political or ideological notions are best. Even my fellow atheists are getting in on this game.
If you agree, then you might be shocked that recently three evangelicals were arrested by police after they were caught handing out religious paraphernalia outside an Arab-American festival in Dearborn, Mich.
A U.S. District Court judge had implausibly banned all groups from distributing any literature, even on sidewalks around the festival. The cops, then, were impelled to deal with these four troublemakers, who were distributing snippets from the Gospel of St. John.
Yet beyond the seemingly flagrant attack on constitutional rights, there is another issue worth pondering: our aversion to conversion.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim human rights activist who lives under armed guard for fear of her life, is the author of the powerful new book "Nomad." As secular as they come, she believes that Christians should become more active in countering the growing reach of Islamic radicalism in the Western world with their own outreach program.
"Next to every mosque, build a Christian center, an enlightenment center, a feminist center," Ali recently explained. "There are tons of websites, financed with Saudi money, promoting Wahhabism. We need to set up our own websites -- Christian, feminist, humanist -- trying to target the same people, saying, 'We have an alternative moral framework to Islam. We have better ideas.'"
Do we have better ideas?
Let's concede that not everyone agrees. During an interview with Ali, Tavis Smiley went so far as to assert that more people are murdered ("every day") in the name of Christianity than are murdered under the banner of Islam -- which is so preposterous it deserves no answer.
I am no Christian, never have been. But even a God denier can't alter history. Though some of us tend to focus on the ugly aspects of religion (and there are plenty), it would be difficult not to concede that liberty, tolerance, basic rights of women, education, free inquiry, free speech and freedom of religion thrive in predominantly Christian nations.
And you don't have to look past the most recent homegrown radicals -- Nidal Malik Hasan, Faisal Shahzad and Najibullah Zazi, to name three -- who were, in some part, educated or radicalized in the United States to understand that Christians should not shy away from engaging in the battle of faiths and ideas. And secularists have no reason to be offended by the thought of it.
Thankfully, on Thursday, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the evangelicals and overturned a lower court's ruling, thus allowing the Christians to distribute their propaganda on the festival's perimeter if they choose. And choice is the key.
When Ali brings up the idea, which is often, interviewers -- even some of the friendly ones -- seem to flinch at the insensitivity of suggesting that anyone try to cajole someone away from his faith. Aren't we supposed to respect other religions? Isn't it impolite -- or "racist," "exclusionary," "xenophobic" -- to claim that your beliefs are superior to or more practical than someone else's?
No. We claim as much every day in our elections, in books, in conversations, in blogs, in columns. Why should anyone be immune?