I’ve been asked to write a book with my wife, Amy, on young adults, their relationship to spirituality and the institution of church. We created an online survey to gather the opinions of this broad group labeled as ‘young adults.’

I’ve tried to reach out to a number of groups with which I might not otherwise have much of a connection in an effort to diversify our results. I joined an online atheist and agnostic discussion group, engaged them about some matters of spirituality, and invited them to take part in our survey.

To say that it has been a learning experience would be an understatement.

I experienced some expected resistance and suspicion at first. They have a name for folks who inveigle their way into the group, only to push an agenda. They call them trolls. Eventually, I convinced a significant contingency that I was not a troll, and that I really wanted their opinion.

Within a week, more than 100 members of the group took the survey. Following the initial flood of respondents, I received several very critical e-mails, informing me of the inherent religious bias of my survey, and of the group’s decision to forgo any further involvement.

Me? Religiously biased? You guys don’t know who you’re talking about, I thought to myself. I’m the guy who takes it to the religious establishment more often than not. I’m not the one you’re really mad at, I wanted to explain.

Instead of running to my own defense, I tried to sit back and really understand the criticism. Some was politely thoughtful, some even moderately supportive of my efforts. Some was outright mean. But the point was basically the same: There were cases in which they felt like I didn’t give them a chance to answer in a way that reflected what they believed. It was very important to them that their beliefs were understood accurately, and that my perspective of them was appropriate.

I’ve begun to realize how incredibly outside the institution of church this group of folks really feels. There’s a sort of presumption that because someone is agnostic or atheist, there is an absence of belief, rather than an alternate presence of one. In fact, atheists comprise a wide scope of beliefs, from humanists to pagans and beyond. They’re actually as diverse in their world views as we, within the church, tend to be.

I also figured out pretty quickly who was interested in dialogue and who was posing questions more as verbal weapons. Interestingly, those falling into the second category made me feel much like I did in a recent encounter I had with a “churchy guy” who accosted me to discern my views on everything from baptism to the Trinity, once he learned I was a church leader.

The experience reminds me how easily we wear our beliefs as tools of exclusion, prejudice and ignorance. I realize I, too, am guilty of this, thanks to the atheist crowd who pointed this out. It reminds me of the words from a song called “Belief” by John Mayer:

“Belief is a beautiful armor, but makes for the heaviest sword. Like punching under water, you never can hit who you’re trying for. Everyone believes, from emptiness to everything. Everyone believes, and they’re not going easily.”

It’s in our nature to believe, even if it’s in emptiness. Ironically, that’s just as important to some people as my belief in God, this presence to which I cling, yet have never seen. I have a way to go to understand faith in the absence of something, but they have my attention.