A very brief note on why I use AD and not CE

Although I have no quantitative data to support my supposition, it seems that increasing numbers of academic works are coming to use BCE/CE as a dating system. AD stands for anno Domini, Latin for “in the year of the Lord”. In the name of political correctness, I suppose, an attempt has been made to de-Christianize the calendar. The first issue is very simple. The calendar has not actually changed. CE 1 is the still the same year that the sixth-century monk Dionysius Exiguus designated as when Jesus was born. It’s still the western Christian calendar, merely under a different name.

The second issue is more problematic. CE stands for Common Era, which implies that this calendar belongs to everyone. This calendar does not belong to everyone and is merely one amongst a sea of others. The Chinese, the Indians, and the Muslims all have their own calendars that matter to a huge number of people. To take anno Domini and rename it in such a fashion that suggests that it is “common” to other cultures is the height of arrogance. Even in the west anno Domini is not the exclusive means of dating. Annus Mundi (the year of the world) was used in Byzantium, and the Christians of the east used similar calendars that were also based upon the Jewish one. The Romans counted time from the foundation of Rome (ab Urbe condita) and then by consulships, a system that survived well into the Christian era. This is not even to mention the means of counting time employed by the peoples of North and South America prior to the arrival of Europeans.

Grand calendars are means of power: witness, for example, how the Iranian shah in the 1970s attempted to re-orient history by dating the beginning of time to the accession of Cyrus, rather than Mohammad’s flight to Medina. In doing so he attempted to cement his own power by appealing to the distant past and invoking an Iranian folk-hero from ancient times. Limiting the role of the Islamic past had the same effect, as it was designed to minimize the danger that an extra-nationalistic religion posed to the shah. Likewise, the re-branding of one Christian calendar as a vehicle of imperialism is little different, as it supposes that other cultures and civilizations are free to adopt it, despite having their own.

Turning anno Domini into a “Common Era” that belongs to everyone may be an act to de-Christianize the public sphere, but its effects are more insidious. It implies that the western, Christian calendar, when de-Christianized, is something that the rest of the world should use. It robs other peoples and civilizations of their unique means of ordering the universe and counting time. Leave anno Domini as it is. It claims to be universal, but this quickly falls apart when measured against other Christian calendars, nonetheless similar claims made by the Muslim calendar, or the Hindu. And that is just the beginning. Alongside the world’s multiplicity of calendars, anno Domini does nothing more than explain the world in a particular Christian framework. Its success as an international calendar is due entirely to first European and then American economic and military hegemony. Do not make the world accept it as a common calendar, but rather let them recognize that it is just one means of orienting time and constructing the past alongside a host of others.

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5 Responses to A very brief note on why I use AD and not CE

  1. scott hieger says:

    Well argued! I teach AP world history and have had the same misgivings about BCE/CE verses BC and AD. The only nice thing about CE is that it keeps my students from thinking that AD stands for “After Death” which drives me to distraction and when I tell them it means Anno Domini- the year of our lord and try to explain the whole idea, they look at me with a blank stare and befuddlement!

  2. mikeaztec says:

    Well according to Wikipedia CE started to be used in the 17th century and then by primarily Jewish scholars in the 19th….though I do not really recall seeing it until the 1990s….It has won out in the US in particular, where gender and other neutral terms like ‘actor’ for both genders have taken hold. Alas, I think that the days of BC and AD are numbered in our increasingly politically correct world.

  3. persnicketythecat says:

    Interesting point that using the common era would exclude other cultures than our own. I mostly thought that using AD and BC wouldn’t be secular enough for academia.

  4. persnicketythecat says:

    I have my own history blog http://historyisfascinating.wordpress.com/

  5. abtwixt says:

    I have held my own reservations against BCE/CE ever since I was first introduced to the concept in college, but my reasoning pretty much stopped at your first point (Why are historians most likely to want to alter history?! I’ll never understand this). I’d never considered the second. Thanks for new perspective!

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