Once we’re over about 12 years old, we’re seldom encouraged to be nice.

We’re expected to make efforts in all kinds of areas (chiefly around work), but the idea of expending energy thinking about, and then practicing the art of kindness sounds bizarre, even eerie. The notion of trying to be a ‘good person’ conjures up all sorts of negative associations: of piety, solemnity, bloodlessness and sexual renunciation. Announce that you are working on your body and you will attract envy and respect. Declare that you are working on your character, and you will be thought insane. It’s an indication of just how out of favour the project of being good has become that ‘wicked’ has morphed into a term of praise.

The main exception to this lack of interest in applied ethics comes in religion. Whatever disagreements one might have with their definitions of goodness or the practical implementations of their own creeds, religions do not stop trying to encourage their followers to be good. They give them commandments and rituals, they deliver them sermons and ask them to rehearse lessons in prayers and in songs.

Even for a life-long atheist, there is something interesting about these efforts. Might we learn something from them?