Skip to main content

Automatic Religion

Nearhuman Agents of Brazil and France

What distinguishes humans from nonhumans? Two common answers—free will and religion—are in some ways fundamentally opposed. Whereas free will enjoys a central place in our ideas of spontaneity, authorship, and deliberation, religious practices seem to involve a suspension of or relief from the exercise of our will. What, then, is agency, and why has it occupied such a central place in theories of the human?

Automatic Religion explores an unlikely series of episodes from the end of the nineteenth century, when crucial ideas related to automatism and, in a different realm, the study of religion were both being born. Paul Christopher Johnson draws on years of archival and ethnographic research in Brazil and France to explore the crucial boundaries being drawn at the time between humans, “nearhumans,” and automata. As agency came to take on a more central place in the philosophical, moral, and legal traditions of the West, certain classes of people were excluded as less-than-human. Tracking the circulation of ideas across the Atlantic, Johnson tests those boundaries, revealing how they were constructed on largely gendered and racial foundations. In the process, he reanimates one of the most mysterious and yet foundational questions in trans-Atlantic thought: what is agency?


"Johnson has created a groundbreaking, significant, and provocative addition to scholarship on how people conceive of religion. And... he is also the first in religious studies to broach the neglected subject of agency—which should be a key term in the academic study of religion—in a book-length study... Any writers who embark on future forays into the subject of agency and religion will be fortunate to have Johnson’s Automatic Religion as a resource with which they can start."

Reading Religion

"Automatic Religion is an important text that analyzes the convergence of nearhumans, humans, and nonhumans in an ongoing game of contingency, played out in everyday social action... Automatic Religion problematizes notions of religion and agency in a refreshing way that will be of definite interest to readers in both the humanities and social sciences."

Nova Religio

Automatic Religion is a work of sweeping ambition and true originality. Wide-ranging, erudite, and eloquent, Johnson compels us to rethink everything we thought we knew about religion, agency, machines, animals, and the human. The histories he tracks have uncanny relevance in the age of Amazon’s Alexa and the algorithm.”

Webb Keane, author of 'Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories'

“In this fascinating and fantastic account of what Johnson calls religion-like and near-human phenomena, he succeeds in obliquely calling us to a radical reappraisal of what we might mean by religion. Recentering the religious on situations in which we see humans ‘playing across’ agential ambiguity, he vividly brings to life a remarkable series of characters who demand our attention and our recognition. The modern religious—maybe all religion—is both more and less than we had thought. It figures, on Johnson’s account, between automatism and agency, always swapping out woman, machine, and animal.”

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, author of 'Church State Corporation: Construing Religion in US Law'

Table of Contents


Introduction: Religion-Like Situations

1: Rosalie: Psychiatric Nearhuman

2: Juca Rosa: Photographic Nearhuman

3: Anastácia: Saintly Nearhuman

4: Ajeeb: Automaton Nearhuman

5: Chico X: Legal Nearhuman

Conclusion: Agency and Automatic Freedom


Latin American Studies Association, Section on Brazil: Antonio Candido Prize

International Society for the History of Behavioral and Social Sciences: Cheiron Book Prize
Honorable Mention

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press