Since Christianity became a dominant western religion, the majority of the western world has accepted a yearly dating system based around the birth of Christ. They divide time into two parts around it: "AD" (anno domini, or "the year of our lord"), and "BC" (before Christ). That is, until recently. Historians have introduced two new terms to use in lieu of these: "CE" (common era), and "BCE" (before the common era). They are simply different titles for the same two sides of history, divided by the same event: the (approximate) birth of Jesus.

These terms are seen as more correct, and certainly more politically correct, than their predecessors. They are supposed to excise mention of Christian religious belief -- an awfully hot topic, considering how many people in the western world are currently non-Christian -- from an increasingly secular world. They avoid the problem of mixing religion with government, as well: they give teachers the chance to teach history in a secular manner.

The original terms were predicated around the birth of Christ and the possibility of a Christian world. The phrase "in the year of our lord" implies that the years before the birth of Christ were of a different nature than the years afterward, as indeed they were, in a huge variety of ways (whether they had anything to do with Christ or not). The term "AD" is then describing a world that is aware of Christianity, or in which Christianity exists. "BC" simply categorizes the time before that as a non-Christian time.

When you look at the new terms, though, these meanings no longer hold true. Now, this is interesting, because the eras have not been redefined in any way besides terminologically. They retain all the same characteristics that they previously had. Yet the eras are now, somehow, common. Common? Common to all?

I think that these terms are far more offensive than their predecessors. They describe the exact same situation, yet try to take away the meaning behind the original terms. "AD" and "BC" never applied to any religion but Christianity, although they were widely used terms; they were never describing the only era, or the era common to all people. They were Christian terms, and referred to an event significant to Christians. But "CE" and "BCE" try to take the meaning of these terms and apply it to all cultures. After all, if it's the common era, it must be common to everyone, right? Everyone must base their dating system around this common event, designating the common era, whether it is significant to them or not.

So where does this leave the Jewish calendar? Where does it leave the Chinese calendar? Where does it leave any culture which bases dates around events significant to Them? Screwed, that's where. The terms "CE" and "BCE" effectively deny that any other cultural systems of dating are relevant. This is terrible! Christianity is not the common religion; we cannot define the common era (if we can even say there is one) by the Christian definition. The terms "AD" and "BC" have their flaws, yes, but they do not claim to be common to all. I think, therefore, that if we are using the dating system based around the birth of Christ, we should not try to deny it. "AD" and "BC" best describe how each era is designated; I for one am going to keep using them.


funky49 tells me that these abbreviations are also used for "Christian era" and "Before the Christian era". Hmm, I've never heard that before. Anyone else?

I very much welcome your input on this, but my inbox is really swamped just now, so it may take me a bit to get back to you. Just so you know.

Wrong. First of all, the term ‘Common Era’ does not mean ‘this era is common to all people’, it refers to a common reference point. What is the common reference point? The calendar itself. The calendar, with the Christian slant that is built into it, is what’s common to everyone who uses it. The year 1 CE is when this common reference is dated to. Nothing wrong with that (it’s off by four or five years, but so is BC/AD). And the fact is that everyone does use this system, at least when they refer to history or to international affairs. They may use it simultaneously with their own calendars, but they use it. If they didn’t use it, they wouldn’t be referring to it at all, would they?

Chancel’s other conclusions are even more wrong. Let's review the reasons for the use of the terms CE and BCE, shall we? Then we can decide if they are ‘inaccurate’ or ‘offensive’ or, perhaps, just plain practical terms.

A - the Gregorian calendar is here to stay. It is by far the most widely accepted dating system today, and will remain so until there is a major shift in Earth culture. I say 'Earth culture' precisely because the next event I can foresee that would make us change our dating system would be a First Contact scenario or a global cataclysm.

B - while there are other calendars in use around the world, there are none that are easily translated. The Jewish calendar supposedly dates back to the creation of the world 5762 years ago. Can you say "arbitrarily determined date which has no meaning whatsoever in modern life, and no relevance at all for atheists, Hindus, and paleontologists?"

C - any calendar you could conceive of using is going to be arbitrarily determined in some way. To you, the arbitrator, the system will be logical and obvious. To others, it will be an imposition. If you're going to impose your dating system on the rest of the world, you'd better be ready to accept the fact that this is going to seem a little arrogant.

D - that said, you don't have to go out of your way to be insulting. It isn't really necessary to constantly remind people that they live in what you think is the Year Of Your Lord 2002. How anybody could think that ‘Anno Domini’ is less offensive than ‘Common Era’ is a mystery to me.

CONCLUSION: Given the existence of a globally interconnected society, a substitute for the BC/AD notation must be found. It must be consistent with the dating system used by most of the world (the Gregorian calendar). It should not refer to any specific creation belief, and most certainly it should not require that every person on Earth make daily reference to one puny little god as their Lord (a statement which actually violates the commandments of Judaism and Islam - it is a sin for these people to refer to Christ as their Lord. See the Ten Commandments for further detail).

In my opinion, CE and BCE are very good substitute terms which fit all the above criteria. Even though CE can be 'translated' as ‘Christian Era’, I can accept that. If anybody has a better suggestion, I'd like to hear it. Anno Domini is NOT a better suggestion, and Stardates may satisfy the geek in me, but they are hardly a realistic substitute.

A final note - most people around here seem to be of the opinion that CE and BCE were recently invented by the forces of Political Correctness. They weren’t. They have been in common use amongst non-Christians for quite some time - I first encountered this terminology in Israel in 1984 CE - ah, I mean the year 5745. By then it was firmly entrenched in the English translations of textbooks and in all museum references. Although it’s hard to verify, I would suspect it has been around for at least a hundred years in various languages, but is only now beginning to be popularized in English-speaking, predominantly Christian societies.

By the way, the original Hebrew version of CE is “L’Sphirat Hanotzrim” - literally, “In the Christian Counting”. BCE is “Lifnei Sphirat Hanotzrim” - you guessed it, “Before the Christian Counting”. And nobody minds. None of this prevents the Israeli government from using Hebrew dates on all official documents, but the Gregorian system is much more common in real-life usage.

As near as anyone can pin it down, the Sumerians invented the predecessor of all written language (by which I mean symbols that were not pictograms, though they were often derived from such) approximately four thousand years before the beginning of the "common era". So, by simply adding four to the first digit of the CE year, we can enter a calendar which, in a fashion at least as accurate as the commemoration of the birth of Christ, commemorates the birth of writing.

I like writing, so I do this.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, one only needs to use the final two digits of the year anyway, unless one means to make historical reference or issue a cheque -- but, as history and cheques have ceded to prozac and plastic, the practice generally suffices.

I used to be of the thinking that replacing AD with CE really changed nothing, and that what we were doing was changing terminology for the sake of political correctness, but that the calendar is still based on the same event, and that it still is Christian-focused.

Recently, a colleague pointed out to me that CE stands for this code: "This is the counting of years used in our culture, and although we would like to propose a new system which is non-sectarian, that would be difficult and unlikely, so let's use this term to acknowledge that our count is non-inclusive." I think this is best: by not using AD we are showing that we understand that this system is foreign to many people, in terms of their religious belief, and that we're making some concessions in that direction.

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