An interview with Robert Wright on evolutionary psychology and a naturalistic approach to Buddhism

November 15, 2020

Robert Wright is the New York Times bestselling author of The Evolution of God (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), Nonzero, The Moral Animal (named one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review), Three Scientists and their Gods (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), and Why Buddhism Is True. He is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the widely respected and has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Time, Wired, The Intercept, The Wall Street Journal, and Slate. He has taught in the psychology department at the University of Pennsylvania and the religion department at Princeton University, where he also created the popular online course “Buddhism and Modern Psychology.” He is currently President of the Nonzero Foundation and Visiting Professor of Science and Religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

The following is a condensed, edited version of a Zoom interview with Bob conducted on 10 November 2020.

Secular Buddhist Network: I want to thank Robert Wright for speaking with me today. Bob has written five books over the years. His last book, Why Buddhism is True, was published in 2017 and was on the New York Times bestseller list. It was one of the most popular books on Buddhism in recent years and certainly generated a lot of interest among readers.

Bob, first of all, I'd like to ask you to give our readers of the Secular Buddhist Network website a sense of what your main projects are now in terms of teaching, writing and so forth.

Robert Wright: These days, I guess what's consuming most of my time is the Nonzero Foundation. It's a nonprofit I founded about 10 years ago. We do a couple kinds of things. One is we put out audio and video podcasts;  the  ones that I do are under the rubric the Wright Show at a podcast app near you. The other main thing the Foundation does is put out the Nonzero newsletter.

And that actually started as the Mindful Resistance newsletter. At the time Trump was elected and after my book came out,  my idea was that what was being called the resistance to Trump was not as mindful as it might usefully be. It was a little too reactive, too emotional for tactical purposes. I thought too often it played into Trump's hands in the sense of kind of sustaining his narrative. And so there was a very explicit connection between the newsletter and mindfulness.

The current newsletter gets into a lot of different things, including foreign policy, and it's certainly not always clear that there is much of a connection. But, I think of even my view on foreign policy as being related to mindfulness. First of all, in the sense of emphasizing Buddhist values like not killing a lot of people. But also in the sense of thinking that a mindful kind of state of mind is actually conducive to good foreign policy making. It helps you understand how things are being perceived in other countries, by other leaders in a clearer way, less clouded by your kind of passionate attachment to your nation or your cause or whatever.

People can sign up for the newsletter at

SBN: You just raised the issue of foreign relations. I know that you did an online course for Tricycle on how we can push back against tribalism by using mindfulness. How did that go?

RW:  I really enjoyed it. An audio only version of it is now available through Sounds True and the video is available through Tricycle.

I think the connection between mindfulness and the so-called problem of tribalism or political polarization is really critical. This is really apparent on social media.

It’s very hard if you do social media to do it in a way that first of all is conducive to your own mental health.  If you try to handle social media mindfully, it's more likely to be good for you, for your own head, and more likely to be good for society and less likely to exacerbate what I think is at least in the United States a very serious problem of polarization.

SBN: I am somewhat encouraged that among younger people who are social and political activists there seems to be a greater understanding of mindfulness, and of the need for compassion, in movement activity. When I first became active politically in the 1970 s, when I was just coming up, that was not so much the case.

RW: There does seem to be a shift in that direction. Mindfulness seems to more present everywhere. I've heard on NPR a show that begins with a minute or two of mindfulness. It's like somebody comes on with a soothing voice and says focus on your prayer. I gather that the interest in mindfulness and, to some extent, Buddhism more broadly or at least some dimensions of Buddhism, continues to grow, which would be great.

SBN: Were you surprised by the fact that Why Buddhism is True became so popular and generated so much interest?

RW: My prior book, The Evolution of God, had been a New York Time bestseller, and so that was a real kind of shocker. And then you know, you always hope that amazing things will happen and Buddhism is True got some good kind of breaks early on. I was on Terry Gross’ NPR show and that helped a lot. She was a great interviewer and I wrote some pieces about the book in very helpful venues which made the book more prominent. And my publisher was very supportive. It was also helpful that I had done an online Coursera course through Princeton University where I'd taught a couple seminars on Buddhism that helped me work through some ideas and made many people familiar with my work.

SBN: Some people have raised criticisms of the book, including Evan Thompson. You had a conversation with him on your podcast, right? What do you think of his arguments about the book?

RB: Thompson wrote a book called Why I Am Not a Buddhist and used my book as Exhibit A for his criticisms of certain forms of Western Buddhism. But that was partly due to confusion.

He argues that my version of naturalistic Buddhism is based on the idea that this is the 'real' Buddhism and that traditional Buddhism doesn't really get to the essence of things. I actually explicitly distanced myself from that view in the book, I guess not maybe as clearly as I should have, but I think in the course of our conversation I make that very clear. I encourage people to Google my name and Evan Thompson on Youtube, and you'll see the conversation. (Click here to see the conversation on Youtube.)

I think he came to see that I was not really a good example of the perspective he was criticizing. I am not arguing that if you believe in traditional Buddhist deities or even to rebirth, then you're not really in touch with the heart of the Buddhist teachings. I don't think we can reconstruct what exactly the Buddha said. But, I certainly would not be presumptuous enough to suggest that Buddhism, as practiced throughout Asia has, in some ways, got it wrong, and that we Americans are now here to tell them what the heart of Buddhism really is.

SBN: Thompson takes issue with your view that evolutionary psychology is crucial to explaining why we think and behave as we do, and why we suffer. He also says that cultural factors, not just natural selection, play a big role in causing suffering. What do you think of these points?

RW: Evolutionary psychology is very central to my book. My view is that a lot of the illusions that Buddhism aims to dispel are in some sense built into us by natural selection and explained by evolutionary psychology. I think evolutionary psychology helps us to see why we don’t see things clearly. The way we naturally see things isn't necessarily a clear or true way to see things, quite the contrary.

If certain ways of seeing things and conceiving the world aren't clear reflections of the world but are good at getting genes into the next generation, then those tendencies will survive according to natural selection.

So certain natural ways of seeing things lead to illusions, but you're more likely to pick up on this if you are mindful, if you do meditate.

For example, if you see an adversary or a rival, there's a feeling associated with the perception that is so finely ingrained in the perception that you may not realize how it is shaping your thoughts about the person. You tend to see the person in an essentialized way, as “bad” or “dangerous.” I think that's built into us by natural selection.

This is a good example of how seeing the world in Buddhist terms as empty – lacking essences - would be a truer view. Their essence of “badness” or “dangerousness” is not an objective feature of the person. And so, that's the kind of thing that I would argue is best understood from the point of view of evolutionary psychology.

And I suppose Evan would say that either that or some things like that are more a product of our cultural programming. In my view is if these illusory perceptions were a product of poetry or cultural programming alone, the problem would be a lot easier to solve.

I mean, there's a reason that meditation is hard. There's a reason that you can go on a six week retreat and emerge feeling really clear and everything. And then two weeks later, it's a challenge again. I just think that the things that are the obstacles we're trying to get over with Buddhist practice are pretty deeply ingrained - that's my view.

SBN: What about other capacities that have become part of us through natural selection, like compassion, sociality, cooperation? Aren’t they part of our natural tendencies?  But they are in tune with the Buddhist emphasis on interconnection, compassion, etc.

RW: I would say that there were developments in evolutionary psychology in the 1970s that helped us better understood how the sunnier side of human nature had evolved altruistic impulses, not just directed toward the family but sometimes broader feelings of compassion, feelings of gratitude, etc.. These are all natural according to evolutionary psychology.

The challenge is that we don't naturally deploy them in what I would call a truly moral fashion. So for starters, we do favor family and you know, look, I don't apologize for the fact that I would run into a burning building to save my daughters before I do it to save anybody else.

But on the other hand, I don't kid myself into thinking that that represents moral truth, right? I mean, other people are actually as important as my own daughters in the larger moral scheme of things.

It's the idea – central to Buddhism and other spiritual traditions - that universal compassion is the ideal stance. But I think we have to accept that it's not natural. It's a real gift that natural selection gave us compassion at all. It is natural, that's great news. But we don't naturally deploy it in what I would call a truly moral fashion. And I think Buddhist practice can help you more closely approximate that way of acting in the world.

SBN: I’d like to ask you about another issue now. You define yourself as a naturalistic Buddhist? How do you relate to traditional Buddhism?

RW: Although my book has an audacious title, my scope is limited to the naturalistic parts of Buddhism, the parts that can be evaluated from the standpoint of modern philosophy and psychology. It's not about evaluating what you could call either the religious stuff or the exotically metaphysical stuff, ranging from rebirth to karma.

The naturalistic part of Buddhism is not inconsistent with other faith traditions. You could believe everything I'm saying, all the parts I'm defending, and be a Christian or whatever.

As far as the other stuff, I guess I'm just agnostic. I don't know whether there is any kind of afterlife, whether the kind conceived in Buddhism or the Christian kind.

I know some people who have a naturalistic approach dismiss any ideas about the afterlife or other metaphysical issues. The reason I don't dismiss the idea but am agnostic is that some of these issues – such as the mind body problem - are a much bigger problem than some people realize. I just think the existence of consciousness is completely baffling and its relationship to the physical body is a source of deep puzzlement to me and I think that people who think they've got the problem resolved are, with all due respect, deeply confused.

I don't practice the 'religious' parts of Buddhism or the 'religious' parts of any other faith tradition. And I don't call myself a Buddhist mainly just out of respect for the indigenous Buddhist tradition in Asia.

I don’t claim to be presenting the 'real' Buddhism, I’m just focusing on a specific part that connects with a naturalistic perspective. I would be disrespectful if I were to make that claim.

SBN: In Why Buddhism is True  you argue that while we may never reach nirvana, it is a valid concept in the sense that it is a goal for us to strive for, even if we can only make progress toward it. But doesn’t that conflict with a naturalistic perspective?

RW: It depends on what you think of as being entailed in the notion of nirvana. I’m not talking about nirvana in terms of the afterlife, rebirth and so on. I'm agnostic on all that stuff.

But in terms of the idea of a state of non-attachment and of not self, an experience which is blissful and in some sense truer than the ordinary perspective in that none of your perceptions are clouded by the particular relationship of this self thing to the thing you're viewing – that is what I’m talking about.

You know, I think like a lot of people who have been on retreats - and I've never been on a retreat longer than 2 weeks - I have managed to get to places where Yeah, it felt kind of really good and it fit. There was the sense of spaciousness even to the point that it didn't seem to me that like the tingling in my foot was any more a part of me than a singing bird that I heard. And, it seemed like a place of utter calm and, and when I think about it in retrospect, Yes, I think I can argue that that I experienced in some sense a truer, more objective view than my ordinary view. And certainly a view that's less conducive to screwing things up than my own way of going about the world.

I don't mean I had attained Enlightenment much less that I know how you would hang on to even what I did get to 24/7, which I take to be Enlightenment. The idea is apparently that there are these people who get to this very special place that's a little bit beyond this place I got to on one or two retreats, and then they magically managed to stay there. I know I have talked to people who seem clearly to have gotten to a place beyond what I've gotten to and they still do seem to be able to hang on to important parts of that during their day to day life.

But my own relatively limited experience is probably what first led me to take seriously the idea that we should take the idea of awakening seriously, if only as a state that is in principle, reachable, and perhaps actually reachable by some people. But in any event nirvana is kind of conceivable enough for us to try and get some distance toward it.

SBN: Secular Buddhism is a very complex trend, but what do you think of secular Buddhism and how is it different than your naturalistic approach to Buddhism?

RW: Broadly speaking, I tend to use the word naturalistic, more than secular. I guess in part because 'secular' to some people connotes definitely not a spiritual kind of perspective.

I like to think that you can think of a mindfulness practice as spiritual, even if you don't get into what I was referring to as the religious parts of traditional Buddhism. I think there's something sufficiently profound about the practice, too. Especially given its moral dimensions, its metaphysically significant dimensions.

I think  you could argue that it's a truly spiritual practice. So, if the word 'secular' makes people think, you don't mean that, then I wouldn't want to use it.

But as I understand what Stephen Batchelor means by secular Buddhism, it's pretty much the part of Buddhism I'm advocating for.

SBN: What kind of role would you like to see mindfulness and Buddhism play in our society?

RW: I guess I'd say, I think it's so important that certain aspects of a mindful perspective spread to more and more people. And by that I mean, I think mindfulness is crucial if we do want to cross the threshold to a true global community and get better living together and solving the problems that we face on the planet.

And I don't just mean climate change, there are a lot more of those problems than are ritually listed.

I think people are going to have to get better at combatting, in the best moments transcending, what is variously called the psychology of tribalism and certain kinds of cognitive biases. I just think that's critical.

That is, on the one hand, a reason that I'm a big advocate of mindfulness, but it's also the reason that I don't want to discourage any alternative or complementary approaches that are heading in the same direction.

For example, cognitive behavioral therapy can help people be more aware of their feelings and be more constructive and less belligerent on social media.

Ok, that's progress. The philosophy of Stoicism also has a certain amount in common with Buddhist philosophy and that can help people play a more constructive role in the world.

So I personally think that Buddhist tradition can lay a strong as a strong claim as any tradition to really early on sizing up the fundamental problem and coming up with practices that are well suited to addressing them So the more that spreads the better; at the same time we need all the help we can get. And if people, in other philosophical traditions or religious traditions want to offer practices that get you to the same place, you know, God bless them.

But what I do feel strongly about is that it's a really critical enterprise. The whole enterprise of making us all better at letting go of our individual and tribal perspectives and understanding that things look different to other people and we have to accommodate that.

SBN: Thank you again for speaking with me.

RW: My pleasure, it was a great conversation and I appreciate your interest.



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