Word of the Day: CE and BCE

How does the dictionary define "morality"?  There's no objective there.It’s easy to overlook how recent our calendar system is.  Our Gregorian calendar is defined by a number of features: that this is the year 2011, that we use a solar calendar of 12 months, “30 days hath September” and all that, that the year starts roughly 10 days after the winter solstice, the calculation of the leap year, and so on.  Developed during the reign of Pope Gregory XIII, it was introduced into Roman Catholic regions beginning in 1582, but it wasn’t adopted by the British Empire (including America) until 1752, and it wasn’t the world’s predominant calendar system until China adopted it in 1949.

Year 1 must be fixed to some point in history, and myriad dates have been used (and are still being used).  Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Short) in the 6th century used the birth of Jesus as the starting point, and this has been the custom in the West since.  Unfortunately, Dennis was off by a few years, and Jesus is now thought to have been born 4–6 years before year 1.

So how do we label years 1 and following?  The Anno Domini (year of our lord) label for this era gradually came into vogue centuries after Dennis, and BC (Before Christ, for the years before) came in later still.

International standard ISO 8601 specifies date and time representations, but it uses plus and minus signs instead of BC and AD.  Unlike conventional dating, it doesn’t bypass the year 0.  Year 10 AD is written as 0010 (4 digits are always used for the year), and year 10 BC becomes –0009 (because of the addition of year 0).

The convention that has become widespread is the use of CE (Common Era) to replace Anno Domini and BCE (Before Common Era) to replace Before Christ.  “Common Era” has been used in English in this sense for over 300 years.  This convention is seen as a way to eliminate outdated religious baggage from the calendar, though there are objections.  Indeed, it was opposition to this convention that prompted the formation of the Conservapedia wiki.

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Word of the Day: Apologetics

Dictionary or Bible, we can ask: Does God exist?Apologetics is the discipline of defending a position using reason.  The word is so tied to the defense of Christianity that “Christian apologetics” is almost redundant.  An apologetic is a specific argument (the Design Argument or Pascal’s Wager, for example).

Though “apologetics” has its origin in common with the word “apology,” the apologist does not apologize.  The original Greek work apologia meant to make a spoken defense, such as you’d give if you were the defendant in court.

A Christian could argue for Christianity in an emotional way, but that wouldn’t be apologetics.  These nonapologetic claims might be “Christianity makes me feel good” or “I just like the worldview” or “You’ll love the community.”

Counter-apologetics uses reason to rebut specific Christian apologetic arguments.

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Word of the Day: Opiate of the Masses

A woman lies comatose in an opium denKarl Marx said, “[Religion] is the opium of the people” in 1843.  This is often assumed to mean that religion is like a drug, dulling the intellect of those under its influence.

But this isn’t correct.  Here is the quote in context:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.  It is the opium of the people.

Marx is saying that religion is a coping mechanism, like a security blanket or a crutch.  It’s a symptom of a broken society.  In the same way that opium is valuable medicine for someone who is hurting, religion provides valuable relief to those hurting within society.

His larger point is that treating the symptom isn’t a bad start, but it’s only a start, and we must address society’s root problems.  Opium reduces the pain of cancer, but don’t fool yourself that it’s treating the cancer.  Similarly, religion reduces the pain caused by a dysfunctional society, but don’t fool yourself that you’re treating the underlying problem.

If someone needs crutches, don’t kick them away.  Acknowledge that they serve a purpose.  But don’t think that that person is whole!  Find the problem and solve it.  You don’t take away someone’s crutch; you let that person discard it himself when it is no longer needed.

Christianity has faded in Europe, but that’s not because it was outlawed; people have discarded that crutch by themselves.  What mechanisms have they adopted to reduce society’s problems so that Christianity’s pain-soothing properties aren’t necessary?  Adopt those, and religion withers away by itself as unnecessary.

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Word of the Day: Deepity

Dictionary openA deepity is basically the opposite of a profundity.  A deepity is a statement that, to the extent that it’s true, is trivial, and to the extent that it’s profound, is false.

Daniel Dennett, one of the four horsemen of the atheist apocalypse, invented the word, and he defined it this way:

A deepity is a proposition that seems to be profound because it is actually logically ill-formed.  It has (at least) two readings and balances precariously between them.  On one reading it is true but trivial.  And on another reading it is false, but would be earth-shattering if true.

Here’s an example: “Evolution is only a theory.”  Yes, evolution is a theory.  This statement is trivially true.  But to the extent that it’s profound (evolution has a long way to go before it becomes truly accepted, say), it’s false.

A New Age-y sort of deepity might be “God is the universe” or “God is nature.”  Sure, we can redefine God to have the same meaning as anything we want.  Trivial.  But the profound implication (we’ve now explained God or proven his existence) is meaningless.

Slogans on church signs are a great source of deepities.  “Good without God becomes 0.”  It’s trivially true that removing all the letters except the third one from the word good gives you just the letter o (or a zero, if you prefer), but the profound implication (you can’t be good without God) is nonsense.

A deepity can deceive if the truth of the first (trivial) interpretation is allowed to rub off on the second.

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