Podium: This nonsensical excuse for a party

From a talk by the director of the Rationalist Press Association at the British Humanist Association conference
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
LANGUAGE AND mathematics are two of the greatest creations of humanity. Words and numbers are used to make sense of ourselves and of the world around us; but they are often misused to make nonsense instead. Consider all the abuses of literacy and numeracy in so many different areas, including religion, politics and education.

One of the most fertile fields for such nonsense is the measurement of time. God may be a mathematician, but he is a hopeless time-keeper. No natural unit of time corresponds with any other. The Earth rotates on its axis, making the cycle of day and night; the Earth revolves around the Sun, making the cycle of the year; the Moon reflects changing amounts of sunlight, making the cycle of the month. But these rotations and revolutions and phases don't coincide - days don't fit into months or years, and months don't fit into years. Numerological nonsense still rules. A good example is the so-called millennium, as revealed by three questions about it.

What is the millennium? It originally meant the thousand years when, according to the Revelation of John at the end of the Christian Bible, Jesus would return to earth for a Second Coming and rule the world before the Last Judgement. It was not a date but a period. It subsequently meant a period of political as well as - or rather than - religious Utopia, invoked by millennial revolutionaries or the Nazi Reich. It eventually also meant a 1,000th anniversary; and now it means the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus.

When is the millennium? On 1 January 2000, of course. But is this right? When the Christian scholar Dionysius Exiguus was asked by the Pope 1,474 years ago to calculate new cycles for fixing the date of Easter, he decided to count years from the date of Jesus's birth. Unfortunately, he got it wrong. He fixed it in either 1BC or AD1 - historians don't agree which - and he began counting from the latter. But both earlier and later scholars have agreed that it was a few years earlier.

Indeed, it was eventually established that Herod the Great died in spring 4BC. It was equally established that the census of Quirinius couldn't have been held until AD6. So there is no way of telling when Jesus was born (if he ever was).

But there is a further problem. The year 2000 is not the 2,000th anniversary of AD1. If the millennium marks the beginning of the era, it should be on 1 January 2001. Moreover, if it marks the birth of Jesus it should be at midnight on 24 December in either 2000 or 2001.

Where is the millennium? Where does the day - whichever one it is - start? Many people have said Greenwich, where the Meridian and Dome are; but every day begins not there but half-way round the world. The International Date Line is bent to accommodate various islands in the Pacific ocean, and the day will start at the one that is furthest east. Claims have been made for several places in the South Pacific, which are conveniently warm and English-speaking; but the easternmost is in fact the Great Diomede Island in the Bering Strait, which is inconveniently cold and Russian- speaking.

These questions and answers may be entertaining, but they are ultimately irrelevant. The so-called millennium really has no significance at all, but is simply the striking appearance of a row of noughts in the date, no more important than figures on a car speedometer. But, again, we are stuck with it. Numerological nonsense affects even the most sensible people. The humanists who mock millennium madness enjoy celebrating their own anniversaries and centenaries. Thus the Rationalist Press Association is 100 years old this year and, despite its title, has been commemorating the fact. And I, who despise all such nonsense, shall start a new life when I retire on my 65th birthday, in a couple of months' time.

After all, we are humans as well as humanists, and we agree with the rest of humanity that even a nonsensical excuse for a party makes sense.