The 'Common Era' - a Secular Term for Year Definition Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The 'Common Era' - a Secular Term for Year Definition

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Several centuries of improved communication and transportation have meant that cultural and scientific barriers are now much less distinct. Such improvements mean that the use of several different calendars can cause problems in providing effective communication and understanding between different cultures. In much the same way that the English language is now spoken worldwide, the Gregorian Calendar, the epoch1 of which is the traditional birth of Jesus Christ, is used by billions of people, many of whom are non-Christians, in an effort to solve this problem.

Supporters of the Common Era alternative say that it is unfair to force a religious system on those who do not share its values. Indeed, many of those using the current AD/BC system do not do so out of choice, but out of several centuries of the Western world’s political, cultural and often military domination. By replacing the words 'Anno Domini' - meaning 'Year of our Lord' - with the more neutral 'Common Era', it is argued that the calendar system becomes less offensive, and less culturally damaging.

Of course, the Common Era method is by no means without its detractors. To many, it is the epitome of 'political correctness gone mad' or a pointless attack on a traditional, yet now meaningless to many, term. As the numbering of years is unchanged between systems, it has been argued that merely changing 'Anno Domini' to 'Common Era' does not address the fundamentals of the problem.

History of the Anno Domini System

In the vast majority of the Western world, as well as commercially and scientifically worldwide, the Gregorian calendar is used. Under this system, years after the traditional birth of Christ are prefixed2 with the letters AD, whereas those before are followed with the letters BC.

The monk Dionysius Exiguus3 (circa 470 - 560) is credited with conceiving the Anno Domini system in around 525AD. Before him, a number of other systems were used, many of which had a highly local focus. These systems included a version of the modern Hebrew calendar, which today has its epoch at 3761BC, and many variations of the 'Ab urbe condita' method. Translated into English, this Latin phrase means 'from the founding of the city' and was a key method of dating in the Roman Era, with 753BC - the traditional year of Rome's founding - being used as the year from which time was measured.

Although not the first to use Jesus's supposed birth in 1 BC4 as a reference point, the Venerable Bede is often credited with its popularisation in his 8th-Century work Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. As a scholar working at a time where many, often short-lived, kings ruled a fragmented Britain, the birth of Christ provided a useful fixed date to record history. In the following passage, Bede links the Anno Domini system with the Ab urbe condita method using Rome as its starting point.

Britain had never been visited by the Romans, and was, indeed, entirely unknown to them before the time of Caius Julius Caesar, who, in the year 693 after the building of Rome, but the sixtieth year before the incarnation of our Lord...
Bede, in Chapter II of his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation.

In this example, there is a noticeable discrepancy in Bede's dating, however. It is generally accepted that Caesar invaded in 54BC, 699 years after Rome was founded, not in 61BC as Bede says.

As a method developed and adopted by the Roman Catholic Church, the Anno Domini/Ante Christum natum5 system was widely propagated across Europe and adopted by early leaders such as Charlemagne. Centuries later, the Julian and Gregorian calendars were taken to the New World and replaced many indigenous methods, particularly the well-advanced Mesoamerican methods, of timekeeping.

In the 21st Century, it is likely that as many non-Christians as Christians use the Gregorian Calendar - an irony, considering its fundamental religious basis. Replacing the terms 'Anno Domini' and 'Before Christ' with 'Common Era' and 'Before the Common Era' aims to address this.

Common Usage

Under the Common Era system, dates remain unchanged. For example, the birthday of Douglas Adams, 11 March, 1952, remains the same in both systems. 'Common Era' is often abbreviated to 'CE' and is placed after the date, rather than before as 'AD' frequently is. 'Before the Common Era', referring to years before 1AD, is abbreviated to BCE and placed after the date also. Sometimes minus numbers are used instead, so 1BCE becomes -1CE.

The use of CE/BCE rather than AD/BC is (at the time of writing) limited, and rarely occurs in British speech. Television, radio, newspapers, most non-academic books and h2g2 all use the AD/BC terms much more frequently. Some historical and theological academic works do use the CE/BCE designations, although publications on non-religious issues tend not to bother. It is expected that the use of the two new terms will increase in the future, with supporters hoping that they will come to be used more frequently than the old AD/BC terms.

Arguments in Support

The hundreds of millions of non-Christians using the AD/BC system provide the most obvious motivation for reform. As the Gregorian Calendar has moved from being used by only one religion in a defined area alongside many other calendars, it is necessary that the terminology used to understand it moves from being ethnocentric to pan-ethnic. In other words, as the calendar used by the West becomes used globally, it must become globally acceptable.

Supporters of the CE/BCE method often attempt to create some empathy for those having to use a system which is greatly at odds with their religion (or lack of religion). The website uses the US Pledge of Allegiance as an analogy, asking the reader how Christian Americans would feel if the pledge read '[one nation] Under Buddha' or 'Under Allah' rather than 'Under God'. Not very happy, one would expect.

While it may not be widely used or effectively conceived, use of CE/BCE at least shows well-meaning intent. Choosing to break with tradition and use a new term requires motivation and pre-understanding, and indicates a wish for one's work to appear objective and accessible: favourable impressions to give to readers. Furthermore, without trying to initiate change, it will never happen.


The idea of a CE/BCE alternative to the traditional AD/BC terms is not without its detractors, both Christian and non-Christian. While many are simply resistant to change6, a number of worthy arguments have been presented.

Perhaps the most compelling of these arguments is that merely replacing AD with CE does little to fundamentally remove Jesus from our dating system. Whether the year of Douglas Adams' birth is written AD1952 or 1952CE makes absolutely no difference to the fact that the reference point of '1952' is still the birth of Christ. To imply that non-Christians have anything in 'common' with Jesus or that his birth in any way defines a new era could be thought of as more offensive than the archaic, obsolete 'Anno Domini'.

The system also fails to remove the mathematical difficulty of timelines having no 0AD/BC, making calculating the lengths of time periods spanning the epoch difficult. Some people are also annoyed with the way that the years 'Before the Common Era' increase from right to left on a timeline, yet their months and days still count-up in the normal way rather than mirroring time in the 'Common Era' as years do.

If one looks into the presence of religion in other words that signify time, Common Era reform appears to be grossly insufficient. If years were secularised, then presumably (it has been argued) the names of the months would also have to be changed in order not to offend non-Romans, and the days of the week (in English) would need renaming to prevent offence to non-Norse pagans. However, it can be counter-argued that while the Roman and Norse Gods represent virtually extinct religions, Christianity is still massively influential and potentially culturally divisive.

Just as the historical background of the names of the days and months has passed into irrelevancy, it has been argued that the AD/BC system should also be allowed to become dated. Critics say that people like Bede or Dionysius Exiguus died hundreds of years ago, and that their terms are now only of historical interest rather than religious importance. After all, many people neither know nor care what 'Anno Domini' means.

Some Christians have seen the proposed reforms as an attack on their religion, believing that Jesus deserves a central place in science, history and culture. Others, Christian and otherwise, believe that the work of Bede, Dionysius Exiguus and others deserves recognition, and that they should not be 'written out of history'. Both these ideas can be responded to by arguing that the systems of timekeeping created by the Church are not changing, and that history will remember the calendar's pioneers.

Lastly, there is the argument that '2000AD' sounds much better than '2000CE', and is easier to pronounce. Similarly, saying 'before the common era' is an annoying mouthful, with the abbreviation 'BCE' not being much better. Also, the presence of the letter 'C' in both acronyms has been interpreted to stand for 'Christian' or 'Christ'.


If the CE/BCE solution is ineffective in solving the problem of a multi-culturally acceptable form of date description, then an alternative is needed. Alternatives are often based around the need for an event that is not of any extra importance to one nation, race or culture over another to act as a starting point. Therefore, the end of WWII, the first flight in space or the birth of Douglas Adams7 are all unsuitable.

System of DatingDeath of Alexander the Great/Douglas Adams' BirthComments
Traditional AD/BC system323BC. AD1952.Today's most popular system.
Common Era system323BCE. 1952CE.The proposed non-religious system.
French Republican (or Revolutionary) CalendarYear MMCXV before the republic. Year CLX of the republic.Began on 22 September, 1792: the day of the declaration of the first French Republic. Roman numerals used, months named after weather conditions. Abandoned at the end of 1805. Not politically neutral enough - it is unlikely that those nations unable to eat French fries or drink French coffee would be supportive of French years and French millennia.
Positivist CalendarSt Paul, St Bernard (Month 6, day 21), Year 1466 before the Great Crisis. Aristotle Aristippus (Month 3, day 15), Year 163 of the Great Crisis.Proposed by Auguste Comte in 1849, this calendar divides the year into 13 28-day months, with one extra festival day not included in the days of the week cycle (meaning that every year began on Monday). Months and days also renamed after thinkers, religious figures, leaders and artists.
Development of Agriculture - circa 10,000 BC as 'Year Zero'9,677. 11,951.Using an event with no precise date allows the memorable figure of 10,000BC to be defined as 'Year Zero'. However, problems arise due to the fact that the chronological timeline does not have a year 0AD/BC like a normal number line would; instead, 1AD directly follows 1BC. This means that merely adding 10,000 to modern era dates produces incorrect results8.
4241BC as 'Year Zero'3918. 6192.4241BC is the first known date: the start of the Ancient Egyptian calendar. Similar problems as with the above arise if one merely adds 4,241 to modern dates. The advantage that the year 4241BC has over 10,000BC is that using it creates new dates which are much less similar to the dates of the old system. It is harder to work out, for example, that 6192 was 1952 under the Gregorian Calendar than it is to calculate the year from 11,951.


It is clear that there are valid, compelling arguments both in favour of and against the replacement of 'Anno Domini' with 'Common Era'. While religious tolerance, ease of communication between cultures and the availability of information to all are things to strive for, the flaws in the Common Era system and the traditional and historical importance of using the birth of Christ to define dates also deserve consideration.

1Epoch: a specific moment or event used as a reference point or to mark the beginning of a new era.2In formal or historical texts, this is usually the case. However, modern or informal usage often places 'AD' after the date. h2g2 style guidelines also prefer 'AD' to be placed after the date.3Meaning 'Dennis the Little' - a term of self-depreciation.4Most historians and scholars now consider this to be merely a symbolic date, usually placing the likely date of Christ's birth between 4 - 8BC.5Latin: Before the birth of Christ.6Probably the same people who prefer imperial to metric, Fahrenheit to Celsius and old money to new pence.7A truly worthy date, nonetheless.8This is why pedants celebrated the 'true' millennium - 2000 years after the start of the AD/Common era, that is - on 1 January, 2001.

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