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Time to revise the Gregorian calendar

It's just good sense

December 2006

Abstract:
As the year ebbs, a proposal for a change in our Gregorian calendar that would make good sense for several reasons.
For over a thousand years, the common calendar used in western countries has centered on the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ.  The calendar years before the presumed year of his birth have been indicated, in the English language, as "Before Christ", or "B.C.",  while years after his birth have been indicated as "Anno Domini" (Year of the Lord), or "A.D."  In recent years, in an effort to reduce the evident Christocentrism of these designations, many users have changed these terms to "BCE"  ("Before Common Era") and "CE"  ("Common Era") respectively.  These new terms have now become fairly common; the transition has been eased both by the fact that the change doesn't make any practical difference to most people, since the numerical year is unaffected, and as a consequence of an increased awareness of and sensitivity to the multiculturalism of the modern world.  Direct reference to the birth of Christ as the centerpiece of time now seems chauvinistic, especially to those from non-Christian cultures.

So have we achieved multicultural accommodation with this little touch-up, or is it rather what it seems, a clumsy attempt to cover up a provincial and perhaps offensive ethnocentrism?  Rather the latter, I would say.  It's an illusionist's parlor trick, a bit of verbal hocus-pocus that leaves all as before.  The calendar is still a Christian calendar, the "Common Era" begins at the presumed birth of Jesus, and no one is fooled into thinking otherwise.  We would truly be better served by leaving the traditional designations alone to remind us of the need to make a meaningful revision of the calendar that can be accepted by all cultures.  I will suggest one such below.

There's no end to the revisions that have been proposed to the Gregorian calendar now in use in the west and increasingly throughout the world.  I won't review them here, because most don't touch on the issues I'm posing.  Such other proposed revisions have dealt mostly with within-year and among-year consistency, such as equality of months and weeks, predictability of weekdays and holidays, etc.  Some of these contain good ideas, and we might benefit from making some such changes in our calendar.  But the proposal below is of a different kind.

Three awkward points should strike us about the Gregorian calendar:

  • Its now-embarrassing religious ethnocentrism, discussed above.
  • The clumsiness, not only for children in school, of calculating time spans within its descending and ascending time scales.  "Is there a year zero?" is a typical puzzle.  This clumsy duality of time scale is unworthy of a modern calendar, though it may have made sense to medievals.
  • The lack of historical continuity which the calendar suggests.  One can get the notion from this calendar that we are in the 2007th year of something.  We are not.  The calendar's suggestion of a hiatus in the middle of the run of time is of course thoroughly unhistorical, and it prevents us from understanding the flow of history as we should.  The history of our civilization has been continuous for many thousands of years; it may at times have stuttered, but is not broken into a "before and after" as the Gregorian calendar would have it. 
How much more convenient and sensible it would be if the calendar started with year "one" at a far earlier time in history.  At a time early enough that essentially all our historical time would fit within the span since that time.  No more counting down and then up.  No more loss of sense of continuity.  No more identification with the symbols of a particular religious faith.  But what date to choose?

The ancient Egyptian calendar appears to be the earliest calendar of which we have a record, and the earliest date in it is given in various sources as 4236 "BCE" in Gregorian calendar terms. (Here's one source on the web: http://webexhibits.org/calendars/calendar-ancient.html#egypt .)  So there's an idea:  Starting our calendar count with this ancient Egyptian date would acknowledge the primacy of this our forebear civilization in the mid-east, not just throw them the sop of the "BCE/CE" hoax.  Under this revised calendar we are now entering the year 6243.  See how good that feels?  We suddenly have a longer history!  A more correct history.

It will be objected that 4236 "BCE" is not the beginning of human history, not even of advanced human civilization.  We may yet find earlier calendar dates.  After all, by the time the Egyptians made the calendar that has come down to us, thousands of years of civilization lay behind them.  So an earlier date for the beginning of our calendar is indicated if we want to include all or most of the history of human civilization (typically taken as the time of construction of the first cities).

In the end we may have to consider the difficulty of our electronic equipment making the conversion to a new calendar, à la the "Y2K" problem at the end of the previous millennium. It is convenient that the known history of settled human civilization goes back about ten thousand years. Therefore, I suggest that we add 10,000 years to our current calendar, which adds a mere digit to our year's number and places us now in the year 12,007, a number that more closely reflects the age of our civilization.  (Carping sophists may protest that this is still based on the Christian calendar, but I'd say that connection has now been diluted enough to be non-problematic; especially when we consider that Jesus was evidently born in the years 3 or 4 "BC" – 9,996-7 in our new calendar.) Such a revision of our calendar will resolve all three of the concerns outlined above.  It acknowledges our ancient roots in the middle east – giving us a calendar for all mankind, it avoids the silly up-and-down arithmetical gymnastics of our current "white elephant", and it resets for us our history as it should be: A single long and unbroken flow of a single humanity.

That's a lot to gain from a mere digit.

© 2006 H. Paul Lillebo

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