When the subject comes up in conversation, however, I have noticed varying degrees of confusion, misperception, or the (incorrect) assumption that I’m not supposed to talk anything that Freemasons actually do. Because the internet is awash in feverish conspiratorial Masonophobe delusions about the Craft and our plot for world domination and/or magickal occult devil worshipping ceremonies, I wanted to lay out a few things for acquaintances who may be curious, as well as anyone else who may find this while searching for straightforward and pragmatic information about Freemasonry.
I should preface my remarks with the following caveat: this is not written as an official position from any particular Masonic body or organization. It’s based on one person’s observations after a year in a lodge in central Massachusetts. It’s important to note this because there are a lot of variations in Freemasonry from country to country, from state to state, and from lodge to lodge. If you spend enough time reading about the Masons online you’re going to find all kinds of conflicting anecdotal information about things like how old you have to be to join, how long it takes to go through the degrees, et cetera. Combined with common but incorrect assumptions made by outsiders and the outright lies fomented by the crazies it can be hard to gain a sense of what it’s all about.
In an earlier draft, I launched into a lengthy description of what Freemasonry is not. I ultimately threw it away, because the essence of everything I wrote can be found in just about every FAQ about the Masons on the internet. Well, every FAQ not written by people wearing tin-foil hats. Also, it came across as far too defensive. I didn’t become a Freemason because I wanted to defend tired accusations based on 100 year old hoaxes (1, 2) or half-truths taken out of context, so I’ll leave that to The Grand Lodge of Indiana’s anti-defamation page. Suffice it to say that we are not a religion (nor are we anti-Catholic/anti-Christian), we are not a shadowy cabal out to take over the world (somehow I think such an organization would have a lot fewer potluck suppers), and we certainly don’t keep the metric system down.
So, what is Freemasonry? People tend to be disappointed that there is no concise answer to this question, and Masons themselves tend to struggle with it. If you want to see an epic flamewar between Brothers on the subject, see this thread on The Burning Taper.
I think that much of the contention over what Freemasonry is stems from its dual nature. On one hand your local Masonic Lodge is not all that different from any number of other groups like the Elks, Lions, Grange, VFW, or American Legion. It’s a group of people from your community, from all different walks of life. They get together every so often to enjoy each other’s company, share a meal, and leave some of their worries behind for a while. They raise money for worthy causes, and don’t expect recognition or rewards because it’s just the right thing to do.
On the other hand, in your local Masonic Lodge you also have the weight of hundreds of years of history and tradition that take the form of elaborate regalia, cryptic symbols, and the solemn rituals by which a man is made a Mason, passed to the Degree of Fellow Craft, and raised to the Sublime Degree of Master Mason. Those rituals include moral lessons and impart secrets which members swear an obligation never to reveal, and that aspect more than any other is what fuels fervent speculation about what goes on inside a Lodge room when the doors are closed and guarded by the Tyler, who sits outside with a sword.
People who immediately leap to the conclusion that any organization with secrets must be up to no good are the same folks who so blithely say, “If you don’t have anything to hide, then why do you care if the government eavesdrops on your phone conversations?” Meaning that anyone with any kind of secret is automatically guilty of something. They don’t know what, but it’s something. In centuries past when it was easier to control the dissemination of information, such an attitude would have been a little more understandable. In 2009, when some Grand Lodges are actually advertising on TV, and you can buy Freemasons for Dummies, or just stumble across the complete texts of Masonic rituals online, it is just silly.
So which is it — A friendly community/social club, or a mysterious quasi-monastic order whose origins are lost in antiquity? If you ask me, it’s both, and that’s what makes it so cool. You’ll find Brothers at both ends of the spectrum; some people join for the sole purpose of becoming a Shriner, while others delve deeply into Masonic history and ritual, hoping to find hidden meanings that will bring them enlightenment. Personally, I believe Freemasonry at its best combines both aspects.
One last obvious rhetorical question is, “why do Masons bother with the secrets any more, if it’s so easy for outsiders to find them?”
As Sarastro put it at http://sarastrostemple.blogspot.com/2007/08/initiation.html:
Imagine that you’ve spent the last 15 years reading about riding a bicycle. You’ve read everything there is to know about balance, coordination, how a bicycle works, theories, training manuals, biographies of great bike riders, etc.
None of that can compare to actually getting your butt on a bike and riding it.
It’s something you just have to go through.
The secrets themselves are less important than keeping your word not to reveal them.