You may know there are two conventions for representing historical years: the traditional A.D. and B.C., and the chic new C.E. and B.C.E. (if you don’t know about that, Wikipedia will get you up to speed). People often ask me why I use one or the other, or what (as a historian) I think we should use. I always use B.C. and A.D. when I have a choice, and I believe we should only ever use that convention. The other should be stuffed in a barrel filled with concrete and tossed to the bottom of the sea. However, I don’t always have a choice. When I publish with Prometheus Books (and so far that means five chapters in two volumes, The Christian Delusion and The End of Christianity, and one whole volume out this April: Proving History, which I’ll blog about when it’s finally released), I have to adhere to their editorial conventions, which include a requirement to employ the newfangled convention (so their copy editors always convert the abbreviations, which led to an error in Delusion, where a C.E. date was given as B.C.E., on page 413, which I’m told was corrected on a later printing). So sometimes you’ll see me use one, and sometimes the other. That’s why.
But why do I think C.E. and B.C.E. are dumb? Really dumb, in fact. The newfangled convention has been promoted in an idiotic and patronizing attempt not to “offend” non-Christians who have to use the Christian calender (yes, it’s a Christian calendar, full stop). That’s the same non-Christians who (we’re to suppose) are still being regularly offended by having to call a day Saturday even though they don’t worship the God Saturn. Christians don’t get offended by naming a calendar day by a non-existent pagan god. So why should non-Christians get offended by naming a calendar year after a non-existent Christian god? Calling the sixth day of the week ‘Saturday’ (literally “Saturn’s Day”) does not entail embracing a Eurocentric worldview or belief in the God Saturn. It’s just using the English language. So, too, the labels B.C. and A.D.
The new convention is even stupider than that, of course, because it’s embarrassingly Orwellian. The traditional convention of B.C. (“Before Christ”) and A.D. (“Anno Domini” = “In the Year of the Lord”) is supposed to be improved by replacing it with the culturally neutral B.C.E. (“Before the Common Era”) and C.E. (“Common Era”). But both indicate the same exact division, made by the same exact religion, for the same exact reason, to honor the same exact god. Either way, it’s the same demarcation, which was the invention of Christians, and only makes sense as such. There is no other reason for starting “year 1” where it does, other than what Christians mistakenly believed to be the birth of their Lord and its cosmic importance.
Yes, mistaken. There is no evidence that Jesus (even if he existed) was born in 1 A.D. (much less on Christmas), and in fact all the evidence we have is against that. The only evidence there is (if it can be trusted at all) entails he was born either no later than 4 B.C. or no earlier than 6 A.D. (a contradiction that further entails at least one of those dates must be wrong). For a summary of the evidence on this point see Richard Carrier, “Luke vs. Matthew on the Year of Christ’s Birth” (or read the full analysis which that only summarizes: “The Date of the Nativity in Luke” ). Personally, I think it’s more embarrassing for Christians if we keep the traditional terms, as that can only perpetually remind them of how fallible and silly they are. Whereas the new notation makes the rest of us look even sillier.
Anyway, point is, the only reason whatever for starting the calendar at year 1 in the B.C.E. / C.E. system is the wholly erroneous medieval belief that the god Jesus was born in that year. Changing the acronyms does nothing to conceal that fact and therefore serves no purpose, other than to please a pernicious form of liberalism that believes you can change what things are by renaming them. And like all stupid attempts to conceal what things really mean by renaming them, the B.C.E. / C.E. notation is less intelligible (era common to whom?), less explicable (why does the ‘common era’ begin in the year it does, instead of some other year?), less practical (repeating the same two letters in each designator slows visual recognition), and less efficient (using five letters to do the work of four). It’s therefore just monumentally stupid.
As George Carlin aptly observed, our fear of facts always involves making our language more polysyllabic, confusing, and useless. As he put it, “American English is loaded with euphemisms. Because Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent the kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it, and it gets worse with every generation.” This is a classic example of that, although in this case foreigners are just as guilty of it, as if they want to hide from the fact that they were conquered by Christian imperialists and are now compelled by that accident of history to use their calendar instead of their own. Just deal with reality. It’s much better that way. Trust me.
The bottom line is, the original notation is more familiar, more honest, more factual, more meaningful, less confusing, and easier to use. There is no good reason to change it.