I wonder what critique other self-identified Secular Buddhists on this forum would have of this new interview with self-proclaimed Secular Buddhist author Robert Wright.

  1. What are the specific doctrines that are discarded as "supernatural?"

Now, for some questions for non self-identified Secular Buddhists:

  1. Any sutra references or teachings for the "cognitive bias that fascinates me" part where he talks about the "fundamental attribution error?"
  2. Towards the end of the interview the interlocutors discuss what Buddhism has to say about Tribalism/Racism. Is Buddhism a prescription for overcoming Tribalism/Racism as they say?


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    I think this is inline with buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/28504/… --> questions like this. Also, facts are not inherently existent. No ultimate distinction can be made between fact and opinion :)
    – user13375
    Commented Aug 10, 2018 at 14:09
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    I not sure this question is allowed here. We try to avoid topics where you're invited to disagree with or criticise other schools. Assuming that "secular Buddhism" is (a form of) Buddhism, imagine asking this same question about Mahayana -- "What critique do users have about Mahayana? Will it turn into a full and robust etc.?" I think it's OK to ask questions of or about secular Buddhists like "What do 'secular Buddhists' believe?" but not to invite general criticism.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Aug 10, 2018 at 14:12
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    In this topic I asked for a more-Mahayana perspective on allegedly-Mahayana doctrine.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Aug 10, 2018 at 14:14
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    So, defense is allowed, not offense?
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Aug 10, 2018 at 14:16
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    Right, I didn't think that question about Mahayana was hostile at all and in fact I found the question and responses very appropriate and illuminating.
    – user13375
    Commented Aug 10, 2018 at 14:28

1 Answer 1


Any sutra references or teachings for the "cognitive bias that fascinates me" part where he talks about the "fundamental attribution error?"

I find two definitions of "fundamental attribution error":

  • One is the view that behaviour characteristics are innate (or inherent in the person) rather than situational -- Wikipedia:

    In social psychology, fundamental attribution error (FAE), also known as correspondence bias or attribution effect, is the concept that, in contrast to interpretations of their own behavior, people tend to (unduly) emphasize the agent's internal characteristics (character or intention), rather than external factors, in explaining other people's behavior. This effect has been described as "the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are".

  • The author uses it in what may be a slightly different way -- e.g. here is the same author writing for Wired -- saying it's affected by our view of which tribe (friend or enemy) a person belongs to:

    After all, we tend to interpret the errors of our enemies and rivals in an unfavorable light, while explaining away the errors of our allies in more innocent terms.

    Indeed, this tendency itself involves a cognitive bias, one that is less famous than confirmation bias. It’s called “attribution error,” and it, too, is dividing America.

    In a context of intense tribalism, attribution error works like this: If people we identify as members of our tribe do something bad—if they’re mean to someone, say, or they break the law—we tend to attribute the behavior to “situational” factors. They had been under stress at work, or they were pressured by bad actors into misbehaving, or whatever. If members of the enemy tribe do something bad, we’re more likely to explain the behavior in “dispositional” terms—the bad behavior emanates from their basic disposition, their character. It’s just the kind of thing that people like them do.

You ask for sutta references. I think an obvious example is the Buddha's attitude to what a "holy man" is. That's conveniently summarised in the Dhammapada (but I think the same doctrine exists in many suttas too):

  1. Because he has discarded evil, he is called a holy man. Because he is serene in conduct, he is called a recluse. And because he has renounced his impurities, he is called a renunciate.


  1. Not by matted hair, nor by lineage, nor by birth does one become a holy man. But he in whom truth and righteousness exist — he is pure, he is a holy man.


  1. He who without resentment endures abuse, beating and punishment; whose power, real might, is patience — him do I call a holy man.

My analysis:

  • People used to be called "holy" because of their birth i.e. if they were born Brahmin -- i.e. their holiness was considered innate -- and Buddhism contradicts the view, that they are holy because they're born holy.

    This also says that people are not holy merely because they're called (named) or viewed as holy, or merely bear the outward signs of being members of a holy caste.

  • I'm not sure about the converse:

    • Maybe Buddhism suggests (instead of their birth or caste or maybe even their view) there is a good test for when a man can or should be considered holy -- i.e. when a person's behaviour can be attributed to the person's internal characteristics -- i.e. for example,

      He who without resentment endures abuse

      Perhaps this is the right time to consider someone inherently holy, because it seems to be an example of when their behaviour isn't dependent on external situation.

      (Not just "enduring abuse" -- other admirable qualities are described in this chapter.)

    • Maybe Buddhism suggests that a person is holy when they're serene because they're unaffected, when they are independent, i.e. because they are a recluse and renunciate.

    • Or, maybe a social psychologist, who holds that the "fundamental attribution error" doctrine is always true, might argue that even this is somehow an example of situational or something "dependent" (a reaction) rather than "inherent" (an action) -- I don't know (because I'm not a social psychologist and don't know exactly how they define and use their FAE doctrine).

As well as or instead of this (definition of "a holy man"), you might (I don't know) also view the FAE as having parallels with Buddhist the doctrine on emptiness (i.e. that things are dependent not inherent), and maybe the "non-self", "two truths", and "dependent origination" doctrines too.

The author's doctrine may come via doctrine on emptiness (not to mention, his own practice) -- e.g. as evidenced by the previous paragraph in the Wired article:

I think the more you go down the path, the clearer the connection between practice and your everyday moral behavior. As I said, all the way down the path is this idea of emptiness where you’re not projecting essences onto lamps or weeds or people, but if you just get a little ways down the path and are reacting a little less emotionally to people, you can make real progress. Can I talk about a cognitive bias that fascinates me because it's so subtle?

The article you referenced mentions morality too, by the way:

We talked about the illusion of self, the psychology of tribalism, how meditation can make us more moral, and why he thinks spreading meditation practice could be socially transformative

Buddhism has some "moral" doctrine too, as you know -- perhaps metta bhavana (meditation) for example, towards everyone (not just for "my own tribe" -- not to mention, whether it's proper to have a "my" tribe) -- not holding ill-will -- or in the context of contemporary American politics, Buddhism might frown on "fake news" (wrong speech) and, who knows, perhaps even any political, tribal, divisive (unendearing, unbeneficial) news and speech even if 'true'.

I don't want to start a discussion of "injustice (in America and elsewhere)" here, though.

In context, the main or final example he gave of what he called "fascinating" appeared to be "demonizing the leader of the country they want to invade" -- a reference to the year-long lead-up to (i.e. the media campaign to justify) the invasion of Iraq (which included what some people now call 'fabricated' evidence or false pretexts e.g. related to WMD).

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