The National Secular Society recently ran a competition to write a Secular Thought for the Day in the style of BBC Radio 4’s stubbornly non-secular Thought for the Day. Congratulations to Veronica Wikman for her winning entry. Here’s what I wrote.
Some of the best evidence we have for human evolution is found in the biological features we inherited from our non-human ancestors—especially those features which are of little or no use to us. Goose-pimples, for example. Our hairy ancestors raised their fur in cold weather to keep warm; we no longer have fur, but we still try to raise it when the weather turns chilly. Darwin was right: ‘Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin’. Goose-pimples no longer help provide insulation, but they remind us of our common ancestry with other mammals. That alone is enough to make them worth celebrating.
Like species, cultures also evolve—though not in the same way. Some of the best evidence of our cultural ancestry lies in the roots of the words we use. Conclave, for example, from the Latin for ‘with-key’: the 115 cardinals who elected the new Pope last week were, both literally and etymologically, in a locked room.
Wednesday, 13th March, 2013 A.D. was a big day for the Roman Catholic Church. But consider that date: Wednesday, Woden’s Day, commemorating a Germanic god; March, named after Mars, the Roman God of War; 2013, the (miscalculated) number of years since the birth of the Christian messiah. Our calendar reminds us of Western Europe’s diverse cultural heritage.
There are other calendars, of course. But our calendar, named after the new Pope’s sixteenth-century predecessor Gregory XIII (which itself evolved from an earlier calendar, named after another of his predecessors, Julius Caesar), has become the Western (and de facto international) standard. And long may it remain so!
Standards are a good thing. They enable people to avoid misunderstandings; to share information. Imagine the confusion if we couldn’t agree dates. As ever, though, we Brits were late on the uptake of this sensible European initiative, only adopting the new, improved calendar in 1752—170 years after the majority of our Catholic neighbours. By that time, our old, less accurate, Julian Calendar was out of synch with Pope Gregory’s by eleven days. The change in calendar wasn’t universally popular. Some of us Brits stuck, quite literally, to our guns: the British grouse-shooting season still starts on the so-called Glorious Twelfth of August, not on the pre-1752 Glorious First.
As a secularist, I don’t have a problem with our calendar’s being based on the names and supposed dates of Germanic, Roman, and Christian deities. On the contrary, I believe the shared European cultural heritage it demonstrates is worth celebrating. But could I please endorse one minor tweak?
Yes, by all means let’s keep the Germanic and Roman days and months, and the Christian years. They are, after all, indelible stamps of our cultural origins. But our culture continues to evolve. Pope Gregory’s prime driver for revising the calendar was a religious one: he wanted to ensure that Easter fell at roughly the same time each year. But his calendar has now been embraced by Christians and non-Christians alike.
So can we at least drop the Anno Domini? Many—perhaps the majority—of the people who use the Gregorian Calendar today do not accept Jesus as their dominus: their master. Internationally, we no longer set our clocks by parochial Greenwich Mean Time, but by Universal Time (even though they’re the same thing). So can’t we do the same for our dates?
Let’s celebrate the international, secular adoption of Pope Gregory’s calendar, as many academics already do, by dropping the parochial A.D., referring instead to our secular Common Era: C.E.