Monday, February 15, 2016

The BC/AD - BCE/CE issue: a storm in a teacup

Not too long ago, I had a (slightly antagonistic but ultimately amicable) correspondence with a guy who was full of righteous indignation at my use of the labels BC ad AD in one of my websites (The Story of Mathematics, as it happens).
My correspondent found it inconceivable that I could use BC to talk about Plato, who lived long before Christianity was even thought about, which I thought was a totally illogical and spurious argument. He went on to explain, in great and rather patronising detail, the concept of Comment Era (CE) and Before Common Era (BCE), a concept which I was well aware of, and suggested that I might be a strident Christian, unwilling to change the labels on my site, but at least he had done his moral duty and pointed out the error of my ways.
Well, as it happens, if I am a strident anything, I am a strident atheist (see another of my sites, Arguments for Atheism), and have been for some 40 years, as I pointed out to my earnest correspondent. I explained that don't use BC and AD out of any particular principle, just that that was the system I was brought up with. Furthermore, I've always found BCE and CE a little clumsy and rather ostentatiously politically correct, similar to insisting on "he/she" (or, worse, "s/he") as personal pronouns. That said, I have actually CE/BCE in some of my websites, but again not for any particular principled reason.
I explained to my critic that I was not aware (and could not really believe) that the use of one date system or another is outright offensive to anybody, and I am sure that someone will probably object whatever I do. After all, as he himself pointed out, the whole dating system we use, whether AD/CE or CE/BCE, is just a convention anyway, one that, for various historical reasons, happens to be based on a Christian paradigm (as I pointed out).
Anyway, the conversation went back and forth for a while, with my correspondent quoting me Kofi Annan of all authorities, and even Archaeology magazine. At one point, he expostulated, "Although you don’t seem to be aware of it, a war has been going on in academic and scholarly circles concerning the issue." And later, "Why in the world would the Chinese or the Japanese or other billions of non-Christians not object to it?"
My final rejoinder was as follows:
"I guess, as an atheist, I don’t ascribe much value to religious arguments. As a non-Christian, AD/BC don’t offend me in the least (and, yes, I do know what they stand for), and I look on them as just convenient labels that most people understand.
"Frankly, I would have hoped that the academic and scholarly circles had better things to have wars about, but if it is really going to offend some people, then I guess I should go through and change them all, even though no-one else has ever objected. Using CE/BCE is still pandering to the Christian calendar to the same extent, so I don’t really understand the importance, but in the interests of world peace..."
And I did. Like a responsible world citizen, I went though and laboriously changed all the date references on the site. But, talk about a storm in teacup! Have these people nothing better to do?

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