Automatic Religion

Nearhuman Agents of Brazil and France

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Paul Christopher Johnson
  • Chicago: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , December
     2020.
     312 pages.
     $34.99.
     E-Book.
    ISBN
    9780226749860.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The “nearhuman” subjects that fill the chapters in Automatic Religion: Nearhuman Agents of Brazil and France—a capuchin monkey, a photo of a slave, a chess-playing automaton, and others—sometimes are and sometimes are not related to formal religious activities, but they are the material that provides examples for Paul Johnson’s provocative and productive new theory about religion. Agency is a sorely neglected subject in religious studies, and Johnson’s conception of religion and religion-like events and objects gives it much-deserved importance. He argues that “religion-like events are always situated between and in relation to polarities of agency and the automaton” (24), while religion itself is “the craft of staging performative events of deferred, suspended, or relinquished individual agency” (40). By the end of Automatic Religion’s sprawling landscape of tales about formally dining pet monkeys,  René Descartes’ automaton daughter, and deceased spirits seeking justice via human possession in Brazilian courtrooms, many will find Johnson’s new descriptive conceptualization of religion persuasive.

Johnson’s book joins other recent works, such as Donovan Schaefer’s Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power (Duke 2015) and David Morgan’s The Thing about Religion: An Introduction to the Material Study of Religions (University of North Carolina Press, 2021), in pushing religion scholars to look beyond the trope of the individual, freely willed human consciously believing in religious concepts and purposefully engaging in religious actions. Rather, these writers argue that it is necessary to focus on the agential ambiguities of the nonhuman and nearhuman objects and entities with which humans engage and respond to in ways that sometimes do not enter full consciousness. For Johnson, it is not freely willed conscious actions but actually automatism that is “a distinctly religious form of agency” (11). This is because “religion is less a quest after agency as usually construed than a series of contexts and situations designed to be at least temporarily relieved of it” (4).

While the thesis of Johnson’s book is persuasive, some readers may have issues with its style and delivery. The author’s writing is unique and occasionally rambling, which can be a positive or a negative depending on the reader. Automatic Religion topically meanders into narrative asides that will make it hard to follow for those who prefer clearly articulated points and solid organizational structures. It is also repetitive at times by featuring numerous sentences describing and redescribing religion-like situations and events as exhibiting the polarities of automatism and agency.

Readers whose research focus is on other places and times may wonder what an eye on automatism and agency, human and nearhuman, would conjure outside Johnson’s focus on late 19th- and early 20th-century Brazil and France. Would other themes arise that concur with or depart from those in Automatic Religion? For example, Johnson is spot on when noting that minorities and women were historically the most likely to be portrayed as lacking freely willed agency and the being the most “automatic” of persons. But in certain times and places among certain people—for example scholars, politicians, and pundits in the United States from the late 19th century to World War II who were under the influence of eugenics—such charges of nonagency were applied to the poor of all races and genders, who were dubbed genetically unfit and lacking the free will shown by those of higher incomes, educations, and supposed intellect.

Finally, the uncertain, ambiguous, and shifting play of willed and automatic action that Johnson argues as constituting religion and the religion-like works well with the varieties of spirit possession seen in automatic writing, Pentecostal glossolalia, Haitian Vodou, and spiritualist mediumship. But what about other religious forms that eschew, demonize, or even ignore such practices? How, for example, might such a conception of religion apply to high-church Episcopalians? It is crucial here to note that none of these criticisms or questions take away from Johnson’s important contribution, but rather suggest directions that others can build on from the base that Automatic Religion provides.

Johnson has created a groundbreaking, significant, and provocative addition to scholarship on how people conceive of religion. And, as noted above, 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. Agency is about how the world around us—and for some religious groups, how the supernatural being or beings above, below, or surrounding us—enables and constrains how we act and what we think, what our likes and dislikes are, what we find comforting and familiar, and what we feel to be foreign and anxiety producing. Despite contemporary Western neoliberal fantasies of the completely free-willed subject unimpeded by natural and supernatural pasts or presents, Johnson persuasively notes that agency “is always hybrid, built of interaction between humans, nearhumans, and nonhuman beings” (194). 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.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sean McCloud is professor of religious studies and American studies faculty affiliate at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Christopher Johnson is professor of history and Afro-American and African studies at the University of Michigan and editor of Comparative Studies of Society and History. His books include Secrets, Gossip, and Gods: The Transformation of Brazilian Candomblé and Diaspora Conversions: Black Carib Religion and the Recovery of Africa.

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