If you think professors spend their free time sitting around talking about esoteric minutiae, you’re right. At least, that’s how we spend part of our time. In fact, just the other day, while smoking cigars and drinking brandy, I had a discussion with a friend and colleague over the best way to refer to years from a historical perspective.
You will certainly know that most people in the Western world agree that we are, at time of writing, in the year 2011. You probably know that the year 2011 is calculated based on the supposed year of the birth of Christ and thus we say AD 2011. Why AD? For the Latin anno Domini, meaning “in the year of the Lord.” And, of course, you probably realize that the years before Christ are termed, not surprisingly, BC. This can cause a bit of confusion because novice students of history must take pains to remember that while AD 1600 comes after AD 1500, the reverse is true in BC, where 400 BC comes before 300 BC.
Still with me? Good. Now, what you might not know is that many scholars dislike the AD/BC terms because they speak directly to the Christian origins of the designations. In a pluralistic society like ours, they would say, we should not be reckoning years “before Christ” or “in the year of the Lord” because, after all, he’s not everybody’s Lord (or anybody’s really, but I digress). But since it would be prohibitively difficult to create a whole new system of counting the years (what would serve as our zero year?), the folks I have in mind have been using “CE” instead of “AD” and “BCE” instead of BC. “CE” stands for “Common Era” while “BCE,” not surprisingly, stands for “Before the Common Era.”
This convention has caught on, and, checking my new Chicago Manual of Style, I find that Chicago permits either system depending on a variety of factors, including “personal preference” (9.35). My new MLA Handbook lists both without expressing a preference (7.2). Undoubtedly the new terms are gaining traction, and some are confidently predicting the eventual demise of the AD/BC system altogether. But I think switching to the CE/BCE system is a mistake, and I’ll tell you why.
To begin, remember that the CE/BCE system does not actually change the way the years are calculated. It still uses the presumed birth of Christ as its reference point. So, at best, the change is a surface-level alteration meant to give the impression that there is no religious basis for the system, when, in fact, the religious basis remains firmly in place.
Second, the terms AD and BC have become so common as the names for the eras themselves that people do not directly associate the Christian origins of the terms with the things they designate. Saying that we live in AD 2011 does not make this a Christian year anymore than calling February 14th Valentine’s Day makes that a Christian holiday (even though technically it is the feast of a Christian saint). Similarly, naming a child Christopher (“bearer of Christ”) is not a particularly religious gesture — at least, not anymore. One day, if the CE crowd leaves well enough alone, the term AD will be as secular as “Saturday” (named for god Saturn) or January (named for the god Janus).
Finally, calling an era based on the birth of Christ the “Common Era” is even more offensive to non-Christians than calling it anno Domini. “Common Era” implies that the importance of Christ is acknowledged by all, when nothing could be further from the truth. At least AD and BC have the virtue of honesty.