Ask Richard: Atheist Resisting Depression is Evangelized by Friend April 29, 2010

Ask Richard: Atheist Resisting Depression is Evangelized by Friend

Dear Richard,

Lately, I’ve been feeling like I’m in danger of becoming depressed again. I recognized the signs early and decided to try to prevent it by forcing myself to get out of the house more often. I told one of my best friends about it, and she is extremely religious. She offered to take me to church with her, and I accepted, partially because I was in desperate need of social interaction and partially because I’ve never actually been to a church service before and was curious as to what it would be like.

This past Sunday, the sermon concluded by telling church members to do more to “spread the word of God,” to “pray for their neighbors who hadn’t accepted Christ as their savior,” and to “bring their non-Christian friends to church.” I was extremely offended by this and, after looking back on the previous week, began to suspect that my friend might have invited me solely to convert me (we had briefly touched on her religious devotion and my atheism before). When she asked me why I was upset later, I explained to her that I felt that praying for people to become Christian was very condescending and that attempting to convert people interfered with their freedom of religion.

She then began to quote the Bible at me and told me that she just wanted other people to feel the love and acceptance of Christ. When I asked if she had considered that some people might feel they get this love and acceptance from a different god or that some people might not even need or want that love and affection, she basically told me that she wouldn’t tolerate any other religious beliefs. She was so closed-minded and intolerant about it that it scared me. Before she became this religious, she was one of the most open-minded, logical people I knew.

My dilemma is this: I don’t know whether I should go back to church with her or not this Sunday. On the one hand, I am still in desperate need of social interaction, and she is willing to help me in whatever way she can. I also know that she’ll ask why I don’t want to go, and I don’t want to risk upsetting her by explaining it. On the other hand, this new religious side of her scares me, and if she’s trying to convert me, I don’t want to continue to go to church. I’m also offended by some of the content discussed in church and don’t know if it’s worth the social interaction. And if I decide not to go to church, what should I tell her?

At a Loss

Dear At a Loss,

First of all, I’m impressed that you’re intervening to prevent another episode of depression. It is something to take seriously, and having an assertive attitude about taking care of it is a good predictor that you will succeed. Yes, getting out and being more social is one of the healthy habits that can help, along with good eating habits, good sleeping habits, regular mild exercise, avoiding alcohol and drugs, and having some kind of expressive recreation like a hobby. If these habits are not sufficient, be open to consulting a doctor for possible medication and secular counseling. With the willingness and determination to do whatever it takes, depression can be managed; if you don’t manage it, it manages you.

Depression can make you vulnerable to the manipulations of others. Subtle thoughts of having little or no self worth can cause you to think that you’re lucky to have any friends at all, so you put up with friends who aren’t necessarily good for you. They can also reduce your ability to be assertive and to say no to doing things you’d rather not do. Subtle, pessimistic thoughts about how various solutions probably won’t work can cause you to desperately reach for solutions that are very unlikely to work or have lots of strings attached.

I think that your initial suspicions were right. Your friend’s main motive for urging you to attend her church was revealed by the marching orders given to the congregation at the end of the sermon. There is most likely continuous pressure to bring in new converts, and plenty of praise for doing so. Later, during your quite skillful discussion of your objections, she disclosed her intolerance for differing beliefs, her tunnel vision focus on evangelizing, and her disregard of the actual problem that you have. She “just wanted other people to feel the love and acceptance of Christ.” Yes, and I suspect that she also really wants that to happen through her efforts. You’re a trophy to win for ego and prestige.

I think your depression is whispering lies to you. It’s telling you that you have few options for social relations when you probably have several that you haven’t considered. It’s telling you that friends with ulterior motives are the best you’re going to get. It’s telling you to not risk upsetting your friend by clearly explaining what you need and what you definitely don’t need.

You say “she is willing to help me in whatever way she can.” Okay, then ask her to help you in ways that have nothing even remotely to do with religion or the church, and you’ll either get the help, or you’ll see that her willingness is much more conditional than she admits. If she comes through, great. Then I am wrong in my assessment of her, and I’m glad. If not, move on. Either way, it is absurd for you to even consider going back to that church, since you found the content to be so inappropriate and offensive.

What should you tell her? “Thank you, but that’s not for me.” Tell her briefly exactly what you think and how you feel. Don’t make it sweet or bitter, just straight forward, honest and succinct. Tell her politely but not apologetically. You need not make any apologies for not believing that stuff or for not wanting to go. If she takes offence from what you say so simply and honestly, then you’re not offending her, she’s creating the offence inside of her. She’ll have to handle that; it’s not yours to fix.

At a Loss, begin by changing your name to Winner. You deserve a great deal better than having to settle for life size standup cardboard cutout friends and acquaintances at a church where you don’t even believe the first belief. You deserve to be treated as a friend genuinely, without hidden agendas offering blanket cure-alls that benefit the salesmen rather than you. Yes, you need social interaction, but not the kind that will end up depressing you worse. Avoid churches and bars. Not good for atheists with a tendency toward depression.

Use that clever mind of yours. You formed incisive arguments to challenge your friend’s evangelizing and her narrow-mindedness. In the same way, challenge your own assumptions about the scarcity of your local resources, and come up with creative solutions for your social needs. Join some kind of secular group, a walking club, a naturalist club, a book club, a group working for a secular cause. Look into a Unitarian Universalist Congregation in your area. Their “churchyness” can vary, but many of them have large numbers of atheists and agnostics who are looking for a positive social forum just like you.

You have an awareness that warns you of the oncoming depression. That is a huge advantage that many don’t have. You have a bright, sensitive and articulate intellect. Use it to avoid getting stuck in the mood mud by doing all those healthy habits I mentioned at the beginning, and to debunk the defeatist thoughts that tell you that you have very few choices. You have a much wider range of opportunities for friends and socializing than that. Find them!


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. All will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of requests; please be patient.


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  • Betsy

    Another problem with depressives associating with religious friends and family too much is the tendency for many religious people to discount depression as a nonproblem or chalking it up to disbelief. A few years ago my sister was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and my parents’ reaction was, “She only needs Jesus.” Well, she already believed in God, she just didn’t believe in their bullshit idea of him.
    So now that I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder II (the “mild” form) guess who I really don’t want to tell?

    For an atheist, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to find support for depression in an environment where people’s solution is Jesus. There is plenty of support in the secular world from doctors and therapists and friends, but find those who won’t encourage you in negative behaviors, such as binge drinking as it can make depression worse. If you can find a friend who is religious but won’t push God at you, that’s great. I have one of those and am thankful for her daily. You deserve better than someone who preaches at you but ignores you as a person.

  • JimG

    While At A Loss’ “friend” does seem like a blockhead, I don’t think the preacher was necessarily engaged in a targeted conspiracy to draw the writer in. After spending childhood years in church every Sunday (usually Baptist, with a few variations) I can attest that the preacher’s calls for greater evangelism were probably formulaic, delivered every week in similar words. Spreadin’ the word is a constant obsession in most churches; I suspect it dates back to the early days of Christianity, when specific injunctions were included in the Bible to go around and recruit everyone. That made sense for a new religion seeking to establish itself, but it has been maintained long past the point of absurdity, in a society where everyone’s heard the “Good News” hundreds of times. But no dogma is too silly or futile to retain, so the instructions are still followed by rote not so much in active hope of new recruitment but as an article of faith, a demonstration that you’re doing just as Jesus asked – even when it irritates people. If anything, performing pointless or annoying acts in public only strengthens the determination of many Christians, since the common reaction to them plays right into the martyr complex.

  • Angie

    It makes me so angry when Christians target emotionally vulnerable people for evangelism. They seem to assume that an emotionally vulnerable person will be more malleable and thus more likely to convert, which reveals a great deal about some Christians’ mindset. As someone who was targeted by several Christians “friends” for proselytization after a bad break-up, I can understand why At a Loss is frustrated.

  • JB

    Thank you for that great article! Helped me in seeing clearer in my fight against depression.

  • Thegoodman

    I think you should continue attending church with your friend so as long as you find it interesting and you are not fearful of being indoctrinated. It depends on how firm your beliefs currently are, how open you are to the idea of “believing” and how much fun you have when you are there.

    I personally find church sermons offensive(like you do) but that doesn’t dissuade me from occasionally attending. It is always interesting to hear what others are saying to better understand everyone. Sitting in a pew doesn’t mean you have to buy into all of the BS.

    Drink as much free coffee as you can, eat more than your share of free donuts/bagels/pastries and don’t donate to the collecting plate. This will at least make you feel like you got something out of waking up too damn early on a Sunday.

  • Ash

    Making friends when you have none is an absolute nightmare, but (echoing Richard) you apparently do have *one*. Find a group that does something you’re interested in; books, sports, whatever. Get her to go with you at least the first time. If you get talking to anyone, ask if they want to meet for coffee – you wouldn’t have to be there for long, just get on a first name basis. Chances are there’ll be other people in the group they’ll introduce you to. Do the coffee thing again (often less pressure if you can get a few people to come).

    Another possibility is charity work; conversations tend to happen when you’re regularly working with people. Also, find a few virtual ‘communities’ like this one to regularly keep an eye on even if you don’t want to participate. Even knowing people vicariously can be a lifesaver.

    Keep trying. Friendships are webs, you just need to get in on a strand to branch out and find people you’re comfy with. Good luck 🙂

  • andrew

    @at a loss

    If you’re int he philly area or close by and need company email me at

  • “Depressed? Find Jesus”. Well, the placebo effect only works if you believe in the placebo.

    Unless you have a “cultural anthropological” interest in going to church, I would only recommend going for the purpose of meeting people that you might have some other common secular interests with. Be warned, though, that many evangelicals don’t have interests that are not church related. Some play sports, but only in church leagues. Some are in book clubs, but they only read evangelical books about the bible (bible study small group). Some throw parties and have social get-togethers, but only with members of their church congregation. You get the picture. There might be some that don’t fit this picture. If you go, then seek them out.

  • As someone who suffers from major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, I can relate to the writer of this letter. Even my own mother who works in the medical field for her profession thought that (at least to a certain extent) my depression was due to my lack of faith.

    I live in a very religious and conservative area (Central MN) and a letter to the editor of our local newspaper was published (probably a year ago by now) urging people with mental illnesses to turn to Jesus, instead of seeking professional medical treatment. Granted, there is a shortage of mental health practitioners in our area (e.g. If you don’t go to the emergency room, you will likely have to wait six months to get an appointment with a psychiatrist), but that doesn’t mean religion is a good alternative! It makes me angry how little understanding of mental illness their still is in our society!

    To “At a Loss” or “Winner” as Richard has wonderfully christened him (lol christened): I agree with Richard and the others – seek professional help, and also people of like mind to spend your time with, or at least folks who won’t try to push their religion on you as a cure.

  • littlejohn

    I’m an anti-theist, but I’ve also suffered from depression. First of all, recent studies confirm what I long ago noticed – the medications don’t work.
    Church wouldn’t be my first choice, but it’s better than sitting home alone, which will always make it worse.
    If you can develop a what-the-hell attitude about the sermon messages and avoid arguing, I say keep going.
    You can even be honest. Most churches are happy to have non-believers attend, so long as you don’t make waves.
    They might even become curious enough to ask you about your views. Be nice. And good luck.

  • JB Tait

    “Find Jesus,” or “pray for relief,” is about as helpful as: “You just have the wrong attitude. Snap out of it.” I took an uncharitable delight in finding out that the person who frequently told me that, later became profoundly depressed himself, and realized that snapping wasn’t working for him.

    Since you recognized the depression (when usually it creeps up and colours one’s outlook enough to not notice) it might be that you are heading that way because of a medical condition. At the very least you should ask your doctor to have your TSH tested, and be aware that the original studies to determine what “normal” is were flawed. The new accepted values are considerably lower than even a few years ago.
    Even if yours is below 3, be suspicious if it is over 2 combined with the oncoming depression.

    Alone is likely better than a poisonous “friendship,” so don’t go to Church unless you come away feeling better than when you went. Perhaps you could find friends online by playing a multi-player game, until you figure out where the right social milieu is for you.

    Maybe you could seek out some Tibetan Buddhists and take a course in serenity? How about learning pottery or Computer Aided Drafting skills at a Community College? Maybe take a course in biography writing? Go to the library and see what groups meet there? Locate your nearest Humanist group? Attend a Science Fiction convention?

  • Bob

    As a (lapsed) Catholic/Christian, I’m aware that faith is a personal journey: it’s not a scientific experiment that is testable, repeatable, independently verifiable.

    It’s actually closer to seeing a magician perform. The atheist knows it’s an illusion and possibly knows how it’s performed. Then there are those who know it’s an illusion, but willingly suspend disbelief.

    Me, I’m an odd duck. I know it’s an illusion, allow myself to be entertained by it, but I’m also not blind to wanting to know how it was done and understanding the physical aspects of the illusion as well as the psychological manipulation.

    So when I speak of faith, it’s from my personal, subjective view. Your mileage may vary.

    That being said, it’s one thing to invite a friend to church and offer socialization – there’s value in any community that will accept you for who and what you are, no questions, no requirements – it’s the implication of ‘but what you really need isn’t socialization, it’s JESUS!’

    Which is how cults like the Unification Church (Moonies) recruited – I believe the technical term was ‘love bomb’ – they immerse you in friendship and socialization, but then you get the bill, so to speak.

  • Killer Bee

    If you do go back to church, take note of the crucifixes(not mere crosses) and think to yourself, “At least I’m not THAT guy.”

    Always cheers me up.

  • Sally Makin

    Some really good advice in that article, which was very similar to advice I got from a counsellor after I was diagnosed with clinical depression. Like you, I can tell when it’s coming on, but last time it started I decided to go to the doctor and try to get some help. He referred me to a counsellor (which I was loathe to do at first, but she was so lovely and non-judgemental that I wished I’d done it sooner).

    With her help, and following her advice by changing my diet and getting out for some exercise I started to find it easier to fight against the depression. I still feel down sometimes but I find it easier now not to give in to it. Since I’m not really into the gym, and also find it hard to make friends (being painfully shy IRL), I started doing dance classes and karate. Kills two birds with one stone 🙂 you get the good chemicals pumping and also meet new people.

    I have a friend who also suffers depression – she went down the route of taking the strongest pills she could get, and trying to find solace in her religion, but it’s not really working and she won’t let me help her. She’s a wreck most of the time and has been getting progressively worse because her religious nutcase family are trying to tell her depression is a myth and she just needs to devote herself to God. Trying to live up to the standards they expect is going to kill her one day, I’m sure of it.

    Anyways, I can totally empathise with the feelings of friendlessness and isolation. I probably live nowhere near you Winner, but I’m always up for having a chat 🙂 catch me on facebook or via email (saille_fearn @ I’d also recommend going to your local library – they usually have boards up with local groups and meetings and stuff that’s going on. I’m sure you could easily find like-minded (non-pushy) people to hang out with 🙂

  • David

    I find when i am depressed, it is due to a lack of sex. That is when I hit the churches. Friday, Saturday and even Sunday. Just like Vegas. Loosest slots in the house, and what happens in Vegas… I hope this helps.

  • That was excellent advice Richard. I’d add that At a loss could do worse on a Sunday that spending some time exercising either at a gym or with a jogging club. Not only does physical fitness help to combat depression but the shared interest of keeping fit can be the basis of genuine friendships.

    It doesn’t have to be running obviously. Nature walks, sightseeing, museum or art gallery tours, visits to Texas’ Biggest Cheese or whatever get you out of the house, away from the TV and interacting with people who share an interest with you. I’m also suggesting this because these kinds of activities are generally cheap or free so you haven’t got to take on an extra cost and the associated stress of spending out on a hobby.

    You can even take your friend along. Their hobby is this church thing so why not share your hobby with them.

  • Ben

    Yeah, I’m going to go with the people who’ve said that the call at the end of the service is more routine than anything. But most churches do honestly love new people, but at the same time, yes. They will honestly want you to become Christian. Not because they you’re an evil human being (usually) but because they don’t want you to go to hell. As they think that is the alternative, they will do whatever they can to try and persuade you to convert.

    My advice? See if she has a group of their friends that you could hang out with OUTSIDE of church. My atheist friends usually like that atmosphere a good deal better. I mean, me and my friends will go play tennis, watch movies, go to Starbucks and just hang out, and usually the conversation doesn’t even drift that way much. Yes, they’ll sometimes bring it up one on one. But, outside of the church experience, they’ll be much less likely to be insistent once you say you aren’t interested. A good deal of Christians think that, if you’re at church, that you really want to be a part but you’re too self conscious and, for honesty’s sake, some think too deep in sin to convert. Try and get out of their playing field.

    Hope this helps!

  • To those who are stating that attending a church service is better than staying at home…you are presenting a false dichotomy. There are other alternatives available for socializing. It’s not a case of “either-or”.

  • walkamungus

    As a depressed atheist who’s sometimes at a loss myself, I suggest:

    1. Seriously consider going on antidepressants &/or anti-anxiety medication. Yeah, the drugs don’t work for some people, but they *do* work for others. It can take a while to establish the right combination and dosage, but you might be amazed at how much better you feel.

    2. If taking a first step online is easier, go onto and find if there’s a group or two somewhere near you that piques your interest. Dining out, hiking, board games, whatever. Also see if a local community college or university offers “continuing education” classes. Through the years, I’ve taken short classes on bonsai-growing, photography, and meditation. Even if it never becomes a serious hobby, it gets you out of the house and around other people.

    3. Give yourself a treat to look forward to, like a concert, a sporting event, or a short trip centered around one of your most favorite things. [This is a more expensive proposition; your budget and time availability may vary.] What you choose should be something that always puts a smile on your face and makes your eyes light up. For example, I love rodeo, and I live in the Northeast, not a rodeo hotbed. So I schedule a couple of trips a year to rodeos where I can spend several *days* just soaking it up. I can afford it, and it’s the right thing for me.

    Good luck. I know how hard it is.

  • Judith Bandsma

    This is a subject that has me biting my tongue a lot. My middle son was actually becoming reasonable after a few years of wavering evangelical christianity. It was great to see him actually asking questions and figuring out for himself where the bullshit lay.

    Then he was diagnosed with MS. As the disease has progressed, the christers have gotten their hooks back into him. I guess I’m lucky he still speaks to his ‘damned’ mother and I refuse to discuss religion with him.

    Without the vulnerability he’d probably be back in college now…instead of studying to be a minister of the batshitcrazyist type.

  • Carol B

    Like walkamungus, I want to defend antidepressants. They may not work for everyone, and it may likely take time and trial-and-error to discover the right drug and/or dosage, but the results can be, well, miraculous. 😉 I have two immediate family members who have benefited more than words can say from antidepressants. If I may say with enthusiasm and emotion: Thank god for the drugs! 😉

    That being said, I also strongly agree that medications should be a last resort. Eat well, sleep well, go to counseling, join groups, exercise, try the various and creative activities people have suggested. But if you’re really struggling, try drugs too. Sometimes they really work.

  • The problem with depression, in our society at least, is that everyone claims to know how to cure it — but few are actually able to produce any useful advice along those lines.

    Religious people will tell you that all you need to do is “get right with God” and you will be fine. Pray with them, accept Jesus as Your Personal Lord And Savior, say a few rosaries, read the Bible … whatever form it might take.

    New Agers will tell you to meditate, or listen to music, or tap-dance, or watch Oprah, or drink orange tea, or drool over some crystals or … well whatever pablum leaps to their minds at the moment.

    Scientologists will tell you to take vitamins and avoid psychiatry at all costs.

    Other folks will offer advice they think is helpful but isn’t, such as to warn you not to take antidepressants because we all know how dangerous they are and how much money Big Pharma makes on them. Others still will tell you to stand in front of a mirror and intone affirmations at yourself. Still others will tell you just to take some St John’s wort and go on a diet.

    The trouble is … all of this religious, semi-religious, and non-religious advice, is bullshit. 100% pure, grade-A, unfiltered, certifiable bullshit. The reason people offer it is because, let’s face it, they’re absolutely clueless as to what depression is. They think that by spewing useless advice and insipid platitudes at you, the depression you experience will magically vaporize. Or, perhaps, they don’t actually think depression is real, so they spew stupid advice hoping you’ll walk away and just decide you don’t have this phantasmal illness any more.

    But it won’t work. It can’t. Depression is real, and cannot be cured by bullshit.

    The only way to prevail over depression is to get qualified care from a mental-health provider who has experience with it. It might involve anti-depressants. It might involve therapy. It very likely will involve both of these. A true professional in the field, with no axe to grind regarding any particular form of treatment, is qualified to help you decide what that is. Bullshit artists with their heads up their rears and who haven’t a damn clue, are not.

    Do not listen to them. No matter how well-meaning they may be, they are … as I said … clueless. Be nice, thank them for their advice, smile and nod and say, “You’re right, I’ll do that.”

    THEN go to your qualified mental-health professional, and work with him or her to decide what you REALLY ought to do. And after that you must IGNORE all of the bullshit that will inevitably stream in from the idiots around you.

  • prospera

    I, too, have struggled with mild to moderate depression all of my life.

    For whatever it’s worth, the thing that usually helps me is to immerse myself into a project — any project that prevents me from focusing on myself too much. If it involves other people, that’s even better.

    Another possibility is charity work; conversations tend to happen when you’re regularly working with people.

    I think that’s a great suggestion.

    As far as your friend, perhaps her intentions are genuine even if her “cure” is ineffective and possibly inappropriate. I think she deserves your honesty about appreciating her friendship but not her religion.

  • Sally

    @ PsiCop

    You are, of course, entitled to your opinion. However as someone who has struggled with depression for years, I’ve actually found that a combination of eating the right foods (ie, cutting out caffeine and other chemicals and sleeping more instead) and getting myself out of the house to do some exercise has helped me a great deal. And these were recommended to me by a DOCTOR who presumably knows what he’s talking about and isn’t peddling in quackery. I certainly don’t think eating right and getting out of the house counts as…what did you call it? “100% pure, grade-A, unfiltered, certifiable bullshit”. Most people here have suggested consulting a health professional. I notice that you don’t actually have any constructive advice so it makes me wonder if you’ve even suffered from depression before. Somehow I doubt it. No one in these comments has even said that you can CURE depression by doing any of the things that have been suggested, so I find it odd that you’re disparaging them for doing just that – perhaps you can’t read very well. Depression is a life-long illness and all you can do is give yourself the tools to help you deal with it when it comes along. These suggestions may not cure it but they sure as hell HELP in the recovery.

    Try again, without the trolling and venom this time.

  • walkamungus

    @ Sally

    Re-read PsiCop’s answer. He didn’t say that advice from a medical doctor was bullshit; he didn’t mention doctors at all.

    What he did say was that advice along certain lines, however well-intentioned, wasn’t going to cure depression. The Jesus road, crystals and bizarre herbal concoctions, or just saying to yourself that you’re not going to be depressed (or believing that “depression” is a construct of the evil, capitalist pharmaceutical industry) don’t help at all.

    “Curing depression” is different than “prevail[ing] over depression” — PsiCop’s words — and that’s when he talks about going to a mental health professional.

    All of which I wholeheartedly agree with. I’ve dealt with depression pretty much all of my adult life (20-some years now). Sometimes it’s worse and sometimes it’s better, but it’s never completely gone. I’ll write the last paragraph that PsiCop should have written:

    While seeing any mental health professional, keep your regular doctor updated on what you’re doing, since s/he will need to know about any medications you may be prescribed, and may work with the MHP to monitor your meds. Your doctor &/or your mental health professional might also have lifestyle recommendations for you (get more sleep, eat better, exercise) that can help with controlling depression.

    What I’d add is that sometimes, you may discover that you pretty much can’t make yourself exercise or eat better before you get started on the drugs, or started with talk therapy. And that’s OK. Baby steps.

  • BlueRidgeLady

    I just wanted to offer solidarity as a fellow person who has depression. I’ve been dealing with it over 10 years even when I was a Christian. One thing I am grateful for today is that I do not feel a sense of God’s punishment or abandonment as an atheist with depression. From my experience, depression is largely looked at by religious people and “spiritual” people as a personal weakness that can be overcome by their religious figure/good vibes/whatever else. It’s obvious to me that the people who say these things don’t know what they are talking about so I don’t take stock in their opinion.
    Church will not help you with this. A licensed, professional therapist may help you if you need one.
    Good luck, and I hope your friend realizes that being a friend doesn’t mean trying to convert you.

  • Robin

    As for ideas for getting out of the house, check out your local Audubon Society. They often lead bird walks this time of year (lots of return migrating and mating/nesting going on). They are usually free or pretty inexpensive, you meet cool people, see some birds, and it’s a nice way to spend a Sunday morning. Or a Friday night if you have the right kinds of habitat.

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