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.