Durkheim and the Religious Evolution of the Nuer

Emile Durkheim was renowned for his work on religion. Rather than taking a philosophical vantage he asserted that society does not worship God, but rather society worships itself. This meant the concept of God was something that was created by society and fit according to the needs of society. His original study looked at what religions were most popular in “simple” and “complex” studies. He found that “simple” societies preferred polytheistic religions while “complex” preferred more monotheistic religions. Durkheim thought with the change of society, so did their concept of God(s). What we could, or could not, explain ourselves, determined whether we worshipped a God or gods. With control of agriculture, explanations for weather, the advancement of medicine, etc., having multiple gods wasn’t necessary to attempt to control forces we could not explain.

This brings me to my main focus: the Nuer and their religious evolution. When Evans-Pritchard first released his ethnography of the south Sudanese group, religion was mainly a polytheistic one. There resided a God of the sky (Kuoth Nhial) as well as the lesser but still regarded spirits of the sky (such as Deng, the spirit of sickness). They have several religious practices and rituals such as cow or goat sacrifice. At this time, conflict resulted mainly in skirmishes with the Dinka. Medicine was considered crude and generally the Nuer were at the mercy of the seasons.

Modern day Nuer culture hasn’t changed greatly but their witnessing of modern conflict has. Aiming to break away from Sudan to form their own independent nation, South Sudan has been in a crisis. The turmoil of modern day warfare has torn the country apart and caused a refugee crisis. Another development we have seen within South Sudan is the rise of those actively practicing Christianity (mainly due to missionary contact and activism). While it is not the religious majority, Christianity has definitely been gaining head way within their culture.

According to Durkheim, this progression from a polytheistic religion to a monotheistic one is only natural as a country goes from “simplicity to complexity”. Gods are not the only explanations for death once medicine and war are introduced. The difference between famine and feast is not only controlled by gods but by missionary work that assists south Sudanese people. Previously the Nuer main conflict arose from cattle raids by rival tribes such as the Dinka and some governmental intrusion but now the country is in what one would call a civil war with modern day weapons. Between military occupancy and refugees fleeing the country for safety, the Nuer as well as all of Sudan/South-Sudan, are living in a very different environment than that of Evans-Pritchard day Nuer. This slow change from polytheism to monotheism works with Durkheim’s predictions that as society changes from “simple” to “complex” so will their ideas of God. While they are not fully Christian by any means, we are seeing a stark influx of conversions to Christianity and enough to see their presence within South-Sudan.

5 thoughts on “Durkheim and the Religious Evolution of the Nuer

  1. Do you think that ‘evolution’ is the right term here? I ask because evolution (at least as we’re talking about it so far in this class) is about progressing in a line. That’s one of the reasons we call this unilineal evolution (as well as social evolution). I wonder if a better way of thinking of this is as ‘adaptation.’ It would still fit in with Durkheim’s theory.
    What do the rest of you think?

  2. Actually, I think you are correct. Now looking back, “adaptation” would be a better term to use for the change of religious ideologies within the Nuer.

  3. In the final paragraph of your post, you mention the current state of the Nuer religious system and its subtle yet definite moves to Christianity at the hands of missionaries. One thing that this made me think on was how in many other cultures over history, such as Rome or England, have grown in accompaniment with a religion not because it fits their societal needs but that it allows for a kind of ‘self-control’ of the society itself. It is self-evident that when humanity is searching for the meaning of their own consciousness that they will be looking for something that mirrors their own view of perception. The idea that there is a being or many beings, spirits or demons reflect the cultures own perspectives on the consciousness that they have. So my question is, why do religions such as Christianity become so easily adaptive to a society even far removed from the condition of its original conception; how does this mode of religious migration happen if religion is to ‘fit a societies needs’? My own answer to this would be in the function that all humanity no matter the stratification of culture, has a consciousness that is near perfectly the same. That it can be psychologically observed through the practice of religion that people are people, and that if a theory is able to persist in one culture as strongly as something like Christianity, it will be able to do the same to people of a completely different background. This allows for a religious system that fits the mold of the human consciousness to be accepted, even if it may or may not be true. My view, however, is ignoring many individual diversities within societies such as pre-standing philosophy and contextual standpoints. But I would be really interested to hear your ideas on how religion can be accepted as wildly and as widespread as Christianity if the function of society is to ‘fit a societies needs’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: