South Sudan’s “Christian and Animist” Population

Evans-Pritchard: Nuer Religion

Cover of E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s “Nuer Religion”

By Grant Brooke

To be a right writing observer of the two Sudans – these days – means one must go to some length to ‘de-mythologize’ the conflict. One must dispense of the simple tropes of a “Muslim North and a Christian South,” generally for the phrase a “Muslim North and a largely Christian and Animist South.” Adding the “animist” seems to be sufficient enough evidence for de-mythologization. The phrase is now the wording of choice for the UNHCR, BBC, The Christian Science Monitor, Economist, Reuters, Fox News, the New York Times, the Telegraph, several recent academic papers, as well as any number of local NGOs and missionary organizations. It has even found its way into the definitive wikipedia page for Southern Sudan.

And yet, describing the region as a “Muslim North and Christian and Animist South” carries with it three major problems:

– There a multiple forms of Islam and regionally specific religions in the North

– There are a large number of Muslims in the South (upwards of 10%)

– And, chiefly, there are no “animists” in the Sudans.

Let me expand a bit on this last point.

The usefulness of the term “animism” is an old debate in anthropology and religious studies. It was popularised in 19th century by Sir Edwin Taylor, and was later utilised by a number of social Darwinists. The same people who thought lighthouses should be banned so that bad sailors would be evolutionarily killed off on their way into port.

In popular culture “animist” came to be synonymous with “primitive,” and served as an adjectival tool by which Victorian adventure writers could describe whichever ‘headhunters’ or ‘savages’ they happened upon. Amongst anthropologists the term gained some specificity in the early 20th century as a religious mode distinct from “totemism,” yet none-the-less “childlike” and ‘cognitively underdeveloped.’ It came to represent a belief in souls and enchantments dwelling in non-human, animate or inanimate, things.

Perhaps, in its narrowest sense, the term maintains some usefulness – modern anthropologsts like Tim Inglold think so. I suppose a society somewhere could take a lion, cow, or bird to be God. But that case is rare, and even in societies that revere material beings, that being generally is not the totality of a God; it is a sign, or even an incarnation of a being beyond. For these societies a term like ‘deification of ‘obejcts’ or ‘animals’ is more meaningful than ‘animism.’ Deification can be used in the same way that you and I may utilize the semantic category of ‘personification’ when we expect our dogs to have human emotions. These animals and things, then, are deified in the same was as the sacramental priest who changes his simple wine to blood at the communion alter; an act that few call “animism.”

What’s odd about the continued use of the term “animism” in South Sudan is the degree to which the core texts – the texts that everyone does, or ought to read, before going to the region – reject the term right up front. In his initial preface to his classic analysis “The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars,” Douglas Johnson wrote “there are properly no ‘animists’ in the southern Sudan, which is the home of many pronounced theistic religions” (xvi). Johnson calls the term “pejorative” (xv).

Even further back the fact that there are no animists in Sudan is the very point of E. Evans-Pritchard’s “Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic, Amongst the Azande.” His whole premise was an exploration of the possibility that human beings can function with complex sources of logic distinct from Western standards. The Azande were, the Azande are, systematic, rational, even dogmatic about their beliefs. Evans-Prichard knew that the classical terms did not, and need not, apply; the best could hope to do is convey this differing logic to his audience via the metaphors of the West. It is telling that, even for EP, animism was not one of them. In fact, in “Nuer Religion,” his most helpful analogies were those to the systematic theology of the Church. EP held Nuer Religion as on-par with other literate traditions – including his own Roman Catholicism.

If Evans-Pritchard tried to convey religious ideas via the metaphors of the West, one of the core purposes of Godfrey Lienhardt’s “Divinity and Experience: The religion of the Dinka” was to dwell on the difficulty in doing so. Religion, for Lienhardt, was one with a complex system of social, familial, existential, and locally based systems. It was anything but primitive or animistic. Lienhardt’s sympathy for the religion of the Dinka emerged from the recognition that it served much of the same anthropomorphic ends that religion served for him back in England – just as in Christianity, much was a mystery, faith couldn’t be fathomed, but here amongst the Dinka religion was just as human as in the halls of Oxford. It was borne of loss, of the need for order, of hope for the future, and a tireless and often unfulfilled search for meaning.

When writing of religion in the two Sudans, one should attempt – wherever possible – to write about the actual religion of the people your description is attempting to represent. When shorthand is needed ‘local’ or ‘regional’ religions will suffice. But, just as we don’t write of South Sudan’s Buddhists, writing of South Sudan’s animists makes no sense. It is calling people what they are not, which is misinformed and unknowingly insulting.


1 Comment

Filed under Religion, Sudan

One response to “South Sudan’s “Christian and Animist” Population

  1. Monthe

    I did not know this. I feel ashamed. I have used “animism” as an example infront of my classmates. I will correct this. Great article.

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