Addresses and salutations

Outside of weddings and funerals, I haven’t darkened the doors of any sort of church for a regular service for nigh on twenty-five years. Lately I was the MC at my brother’s wedding here in Canada, which was held at an outdoor chapel with no specific denominatory leaning, though the minister who conducted the service (and did a wonderful job, I might add) was an Anglican. While chatting with this warm, charming and elderly Anglican gent of the cloth before the proceedings began, I stumbled over how to address him. He smiled and said he took little stock in titles, though officially he was addressed as “Reverend.”

This later got me to thinking about titles. I’ve decided that I’m quite happy addressing or referring to a medical doctor as “Doctor Smith” and a professor at a university as “Professor Norton,” but as an atheist I respect no religion, so I would not feel comfortable addressing a priest as “Father” or “Padre” or a minister as “Reverend,” etc. Granted, I am rarely afforded the opportunity in a social or formal setting where I would be expected to introduce such a person, but I wonder what non-believers do in those situations? Simply welcome “Father O’Malley” to the podium to give his address at the charity dinner? Heartily shake hands with “the Right Reverend Eames” and introduce him to those assembled? In other words, conform to social niceties?

I’m not the sort of person who likes making a scene, and I don’t need to “stand up for my beliefs” every bleedin’ minute of the day, but it seems to me that I don’t believe in any God, much less the Roman one, so I would feel silly in a situation, say, where I met a priest with a mutual friend in a drug store and was henceforth expected to address him as “Father.” I just don’t think I would do it. I’m reminded of the Mormons in Taiwan who I met now and then, and who would present themselves as “Elder Jones” and “Elder Black” to me, a man at least ten years their senior. I remember chuckling at that.

But with the priests and the reverends and the shamans and the like, well, what would you do as an atheist? I’ve already thought up a couple of pithy comebacks should a priest ever “correct” me by insisting upon Father O’Malley: “You’re not actually my father,” or, “My father lives in Saskatchewan,” or something like that.


This is an interesting point. My husband and I came across this recently when we were introduced to a group of expat nuns and a priest.

My husband and I are both atheists, but I grew up in the Catholic Church as a child and my husband never went to church. I had no problem calling the nuns “Sister” and the priest “Father” because it was part of my vocabulary as a child, but it did feel a little odd. However, I noticed that my husband didn’t address them with any title until later when he talked to the priest about something, and then he called him “Sir.”

My husband was obviously more uncomfortable with the titles of “Father” and “Sister” than me, simply because I was so used to them when growing up. I don’t have a problem with using them, though…they are just titles to me and mean nothing really.

I suppose that it has nothing to do with your religious beliefs but just as a politeness to the person addressed …

What’s wrong with “sir”? :idunno:

Would priests find that acceptable as an address, viz. “Hello Sir O’Malley”? I’m guessing that would sound strange. Just “sir,” perhaps, would do. I wouldn’t have a problem with that myself.

In a situation where you’re introducing a priest to a third person, it seems to me that “Sir O’Malley” or “Mr. O’Malley” would cause offense. My guess is that the priest would most likely object and interpolate with a “Father O’Malley” as he is shaking the hand of the person he is being introduced to. Don’t you think?

Thing is, I simply cannot bring myself to call any man other my father “Father.” So I’m wondering how much offense I would cause during a garden party if for a second and third introduction I insisted on saying “Mr. O’Malley” and the priest gritted his teeth and “corrected” me with “Father O’Malley.” And I wonder if it would turn into a silly game as we teetered along the boundaries of etiquette.

Thing is, there is simply only one man in the world that I can call “Father.” But I’d be curious to hear of any more anecdotes, even from religious people. If you’re not Catholic, but are of another religion or Christian denomination, would you object to using the honorific “Father”?

Of course it’s just “sir”, unless the dude has been knighted. Zheige hai yao yong shuode ma? It seems to me that you’re more interested in asserting your right to not address this man as “Father” than in actually finding an acceptable alternative. “Sir” is just fine. “Good morning, sir” “That was a lovely eulogy, sir.” No problem.

I call everybody by their customary titles, regardless of whether I belong to the religion. I might make an exception in cases where I believe fraud to be involved (such as “doctors” of chiropractic or TCM), but I might just as easily play along.

There was this God-awful movie about a Shangri-La type hidden land in Wyoming that was full of Indians, in which two professors meet each other, or something like that. One of them corrects the other and asks to be addressed as “Doctor.” In real life, I would more readily believe in the secret utopia, than that so garish an exchange actually occurred.

You think “Father” and “Reverend” are asking a lot…? How about “His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada”? (Or “Srila Prabhupada” for short.) Fortunately he’s dead, so the issue is mostly theoretical. but almost every part of his name is actually an honorific.

“Rabbi” literally means “Master”.

“Bishop” (episcopos) means “overseer.”

“Pope” of course means “Father,” so I guess you’d have to call him the Pontiff (pontifex maximus, “bridge-builder”–a Roman honorary title…oh, forget it).

“Dalai Lama”…well, Dalai means “Ocean” and translates “Gyatso” (their ordination names, after # 3), referring to their infinite good qualities. “Lama” has several glosses, all of them positive. The Chinese refer to him as “the Dalai” in English, so I guess that’s supposed to be an insult.

I find it odd the way Shi’is throw around the title of “imam.” (Was Khomeini supposed to be one of the Twelve?)

Fortunately, I belong to a religion where you don’t HAVE to refer to the founder as the Living Slack-Master. When you find yourself dragged into his presence in the afterlife, you can just call him “Bob.”

I certainly am interested in asserting my right not to use “Father,” but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in alternatives. Why else would I have started this thread?

And yes, once again, I get that “sir” is just fine. But what about for introductions? What are the acceptable alternatives to “Father O’Malley?” Or are there any (to the priest)? I’m guessing no, but I’d like to hear any suggestions.

A more usual area for this sort of problem to come up, is in-laws / step-parents / etc. What do you do if someone expects you to call him “Dad,” but YOU don’t want to?

(“Who’s your Daddy? Come on, SAY MY NAME !!!”)


You might think of avoiding the whole issue by not calling them anything (“Hey you!”) but that doesn’t work with Taiwanese. For example, I am required to greet my parents-in-law as “Ba” and “Ma,” as soon as I see them.

Sir sounds strange to British ears - something I used at school with male teachers, but rather antiquated in other contexts. And rousseau’s point about introductions still stands. “Jane, I’d like you to meet Father O’Malley”.

As an atheist I would still use “Father” to refer to him (although not to address him directly) - not because I think he’s entitled to any special respect (he’s not, in my book, at least not simply by virtue of being a priest), but because it’s a social norm. I do and say lots of things I don’t really believe because they’re social niceties - you could try cutting all these things out of your discourse, but you’d find it very uncomfortable.

You could always just say: “This is Mr. O’Malley. He’s a priest.” It would make you appear just as boorish as saying plain old Mr. O’Malley, though. And you could also respond with “You’re not my father!” to his polite correction. You could stamp your little foot, too, for added childishness – I mean emphasis.
The guy’s a big cheese in a silly cult, but there’s a recognized form of address for him in mainstream society, whether you agree with it or not.

There you go. Sandman made my point better, and a lot more succinctly.

I mean, think about it – you could extend it to just about anything at all. Chen the Greaseball, for example, is about as presidential as my last jobbie, but I’d still address him as Mr. President if I was ever unfortunate enough to be introduced to him, because that’s what civilized folk do, unless they’re looking for an argument, a fight, or an opportunity to appear like a sanctimonious prick. And the question of which form of honorific to use is very very far from the kind of thing I’d bother to fight, argue over, or give a fiddler’s fart about. He can call himself the Grand Poohbah of Buggeration Boulevard for all I care.

You could introduce him as “Tom O’Malley of the Order of St. Benedict”, or something like that.

The guy’s a big cheese in a silly cult, but there’s a recognized form of address for him in mainstream society, whether you agree with it or not.[/quote]

Case closed. Well said.

Sandman, I see your point. But I disagree that I should simply go along with conventional usage, for several reasons:

  1. It’s partly an emotive reaction: calling someone not my father “Father” is creepy.
  2. I respect the office of a democratically-elected president, so I have no problem addressing someone as “Mr. President,” but I don’t extend the respect to any and every institution. You joke about your “Grand Poobah,” but do you really refer to the North Korean dictator as “Dear Leader”? Well, do you? I thought not. So why do you draw the line there? How about Mormons? “Elder” for you when referring to them in the third person? I think I would laugh out loud if a non-Mormon acquaintance told me that “Elder Berry” stopped by the other day and dropped off some literature for us to read.

It’s peculiar, me starting this thread. I am by temperament a fairly conservative person, and would normally be persuaded by the argument that something is conventional in mainstream society so there’s really no point in making waves, but this particular issue has given me pause, and made me question conventional practice.

Tigerman, I like your suggestion.

Oddly enough, while growing up I resisted parental pressure to use “sir” and “ma’am” for various elders because I thought the practice smacked of feudalism and inequality.

I understand that priests encounter your attitude somewhat regularly. (A lot of people in our society have issues either with religion, or their parents, or both.) If you can’t just sidestep the issue by not calling them anything, maybe you could just admit that the title makes you uncomfortable. Most will understand and tell you to call them by their first name.

For introductions, why not just give their full names? “Sue, this is John O’Mally…”

Whatever social or metaphysical shortcomings the church may have, there are a lot of good people in the priesthood. Do give them a chance.

I grew up in a Baptist neighborhood where everybody (but us) belonged to the same gung-ho church, and called each other “Brother” this and “Sister” that. (An old woman across the street was “Mother” so-and-so.) We joined in. I mean, why not?

As fate would have it, the same church was dead-set against calling anyone (but their fathers) “Father” because there’s a verse in the Bible somewhere that says not to do that.

Thing is though, you’re not actually calling them “father.” You’re calling them “Father.” There’s a difference.

I’m with Sandman on this one. It’s a title; sometimes we just have to put our egos aside. If you really must, then at least use their functional descriptor (.i.e. ‘Priest O’Ryan,’ etc).

It’s just considered common courtesy when making introductions; leave the philosophical debates and hidden personal agendas for a different occasion (like a formal debate forum, for example).

Also, if I had the displeasure of having to introduce the leader of North Korea to an audience, I would STILL use the formal title of his office. Calling him by other (possibly derogatory) names would tell the audience far more about my ignorance and lack of social graces than about the person I’m introducing.

There’s no way I’m calling some pimple-faced kid barely old enough to shave “Elder”.