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.