Is Freemasonry Free from Religious Bias?

Is Freemasonry Free from Religious Bias?

If you investigate freemasonry and religion, among the first things you will find are various iterations of the following message:

Freemasonry is not a religion, and is not intended to be a replacement for religion. Within the ranks of the brotherhood are many people of varying backgrounds and faiths. Lodges in one part of the world may have more members of a particular faith than those in other parts, but regardless of this, believers of all faiths are welcome. The teachings and rituals of freemasonry are intended to be acceptable to all religious traditions, and the organization encourages its members to practice their chosen faith, and to serve God above all man-made institutions.

While this is true, the relationship of freemasonry to various religions has gone through phases, and evolved over time. Some religions or sects have regarded freemasonry with suspicion, or in some cases, outright condemnation. Meanwhile, some of the rituals and symbolism used in Lodge clearly are traceable to particular religions, such as the Judeo/Christian. Does this mean that freemasonry is particularly Christian or Jewish, as opposed to any other faith? What is its compatibility with other, non-Christian faiths?

Freemasonry’s Historical Relationship with Christianity

freemasonry and christianityComing, most recently, from Europe in the first and second millennia C.E., it should not surprise us that freemasonry has been influenced by religion, specifically Christianity. While the York Rite has many Christian elements, this is only an appendant body, whose degrees are not essential to being a Mason. Beyond this, the common use of the Bible as the Volume of the Sacred Law (or Lore) in the rituals is more-or-less the extent of specifically Christian symbolism in freemasonry, and even that is not ubiquitous among lodges and orders.

On the other hand, from a historical perspective, many believe that speculative (philosophical) Freemasonry might not exist today, if not for Christianity. This is due to the fact that much of what makes freemasonry so unique and valuable is to some extent the result of Christian oppression. In this sense, religion in the form of Christianity may have shaped Freemasonry far more from the outside than from the inside, at least according to many masonic historians, such as the masonic history described by Manly P. Hall.

During what we normally call the Dark Ages, various Western wisdom traditions, tracing their origins to the mystery schools of the ancient world, found refuge in the the ranks of operative masonry, among those who were truly stonemasons by trade. The operative masons’ democratic organizational structures, political independence, and secretive nature made this guild-like organization an appealing place for those who were considered heretics under the rule of the Catholic church. Within its ranks, they could practice and carry on their traditions in safety, and freely exchange ideas, blending the ancient wisdom teachings with the more literal craft of the masonic trade.

hermeticism alchemy and freemasonryThe fusion of these refugee practitioners of gnosticism, hermeticism, alchemy, astrology, and related systems with the operative builders of old is the origin of speculative freemasonry, as we know it today, and it all happened in part because of the religious tyranny of the church. Not only did freemasonry as we now know it come into existence partly to conceal themselves from the persecution of the church, but also subverted it in some ways, such as by being heavily involved in the secret colleges which ultimately culminated in the scientific revolution, and scientific enlightenment, displacing the Catholic church as a monopoly on truth. Yet, does this mean that Freemasonry was inherently anti-catholic, or anti-christian?

Freemasonry is primarily a collection of traditions and rituals, none of which are explicitly against any religion, but in fact are supportive of religion. What Freemasons generally are opposed to are tyranny over the minds and lives of people. Freemasons have been, throughout history, proponents and defenders of personal liberty, including the freedom to think, believe, speak, and worship as each person sees fit, as well as the ideal of self-rule and democratic forms of government. In fact, many masonic historians claim that our organization was instrumental in the democratic uprisings of the 18th century, including both the French and American revolutions.

In this light, we can safely say that freemasonry’s rocky historical relationship with Catholicism had less to do with their beliefs, and more to do with their imperial and dogmatic rule, which persisted even after the fall of the Roman Empire. Since the fall of that empire, freemasonry’s relationship to Catholicism and protestant Christianity has been much more congenial, even symbiotic, with many Masons also being members of various churches and clergy.

Conservative or Fundamentalist Religions

While much of freemasonry’s historical context is in relation to Catholicism, it has of course interacted with many other religions, as well. It might be safe to say that the theme is not so much variation in freemasonry’s attitude towards the various religions, antimasonryas we believe in freedom of individual worship, but rather in those other religions’ attitudes towards freemasonry. Often, the most conservative of these religions have a strong aversion to the theologically liberal nature of masonry.

The Muslim world is an excellent example. For various reasons, the Islamic peoples of the world have not generally had a very favorable view of Freemasonry, with it being totally banned in some Muslim countries. This seems to be due primarily to the Judeo-Christian flavor, symbolism, and historical lore of some aspects of freemasonry.

On the other hand, one appendant body of Freemasonry, the Shriners, clearly has Islamic symbolism, and some even trace their history to the first followers of Mohammed. Writers on the subject tie the Islamic opposition to freemasonry mostly to their political opposition to Judaism, and the long-standing rivalry between these two branches of the Abrahamic faiths.

Another group with a strongly antipathetic view on Freemasonry are some modern evangelical Christian sects, as well as some other protestant bodies. The details of their various stances are too great to go into, but generally they tend to associate Freemasonry with the occult, and therefore satanism, witchcraft, etc. Another common thread among both Evangelicals and Islamic people is the idea that Freemasonry is a Jewish conspiracy, mostly based on the prominent symbolism of Solomon’s Temple.

In general, those religious groups most opposed to Freemasonry are also those who are most opposed to freedom of religious thought, and those which are friendliest towards it are the most religiously liberal. Regardless of this, Freemasonry itself welcomes people of any particular faith.

Freemasonry and Non-Abrahamic Faiths

The relationship of Freemasonry to other belief systems outside the domain of hinduism and freemasonryAbrahamic religions follows the same aforementioned pattern; however, since non-Abrahamic religions tend to be less restrictive on personal freedom of thought, the relationship tends to be more often positive or neutral.

Hinduism in India, for instance, is generally accepting of all forms of worship as being within the myriad ways in which one can come to know God, Brahman or the absolute, and as such, freemasonry is usually regarded as another one of those ways, albeit one from a totally different cultural context, the West. Just as Hindus can accept Christ as a great saint, so they can usually accept freemasonry as a spiritual practice. Because of the British imperial rule, Freemasonry has had a presence there, and some believe that freemasonry has played some part in merging of East and West in India.

Likewise, there is not much in Buddhism which is opposed to masonic ideals and practices, and many masons practice some form of it. Today, some orders of freemasonry, most notably Universal Co-Masonry, are particularly friendly towards Eastern philosophy in general, even sometimes using the Vedas or I-Ching as our volumes of sacred lore. This is due in part to our historical ties to Theosophy, and consideration of the Eastern origins of much of Western esoteric tradition.

Lastly, what about Interfaith, Wiccan, Neo-shamanic, Pagan, New Age, and similar non-denominational, eclectic forms of spirituality? As with every other belief system, these should be welcome in freemasonry, so long as they believe in a singular, primary Higher Power, regardless of various sub-deities which may also be worshiped.

hermeticism and freemasonryAs far as which Order of Freemasonry this type of person might find most compatible, the main thing to consider is the culture of the brothers in the lodge; the more liberal and universal, the better. Membership in a primarily Christian or Muslim lodge may be possible, but might still feel out-of-place.

In that sense, Universal Co-Masonry, which is generally more religiously liberal as well as more mystically or spiritually oriented, is likely to be a more comfortable community for anyone on this type of path, the difference being primarily not in the rituals themselves, which are much the same as masculine masonry, but in the culture of the membership, and of course the lack of segregation by gender, race, or any other attributes.

Eastern Sages, Western Secrets: What Has Vedanta to Do with Freemasonry?

Eastern Sages, Western Secrets: What Has Vedanta to Do with Freemasonry?

Like unto that of a man blindfolded and carried away by robbers from his own country is a man’s condition. The folds of cloth over his eyes being removed by a friend, he recovers the use of his eyes and slowly finds his way home, step by step, inquiring at each stage. So also, the good teacher instructs the seeker of Truth and helps him to unloose his bonds of desire. ~ From the Chandogya Upanishad 6:14:1/3

As a young seeker of Truth, I found the wisdom of the East long before I found the hidden wisdom of the West. After I had turned away from the exoteric religion of my upbringing, and briefly embraced the alternative orthodoxy of nihilistic materialist scientism, I began to seek truths beyond the tiresome antagonism of the “religion vs. science” debate, and it was not long before I discovered the Bhagavad Gita, Taoism, Buddhist teachings, and Western interpreters like Alan Watts and Ram Dass. Of all the Eastern traditions, Vedantic philosophy (rooted in the Vedas, Upanishads, and related texts) has influenced my worldview more than any other system of thought.

Now, as a newcomer to the Western wisdom tradition of Freemasonry, and to some extent also Theosophy, Alchemy, and Hermeticism, I am struck by the similarity in essence, but difference in expression between East and West. Although I still have much to learn, I sense that the one great Truth, described by Aldous Huxley as the Perennial Philosophy, is fundamentally the same in the Western traditions as in the East, but is clothed in secrecy and symbolism, and in some ways emphasizes certain values over others. The contrast between East and West is particularly interesting to me, as they are two halves of humanity’s collective mind, just as they represent two poles on our globe.

Torch Bearers from the East

eastern wisdomTo begin with, we can be fairly certain that the connection between East and West goes back at least as far as all of Western history, as we know it. The history of great Western philosophers is also in part a history of those who journeyed to the East, learned, and came back with new insights which had to be clothed and couched in the prevailing worldview of whatever Western culture they were returning to, in order to be understood and accepted; even then, they were often rejected, sometimes violently. Bearers of the torch carrying light from the East are notoriously persecuted upon their return to the West, and often meet a gruesome end.

Some think that none other than Jesus of Nazareth is one such example, although this is still a highly controversial theory, with inconclusive evidence that he visited the East during his “missing years.” Another is Pythagoras, who is thought to have traveled extensively in his youth, at least as far East as Persia, and who also was killed by the ignorant. One that is more recent, and therefore also more certain, is that of H. P. Blavatsky, one of the founders of Theosophy and originators of Victorian spiritualism, which also preceded and influenced much of what people consider to be “new age” or “new thought” ideas, today.

In general, I think that we underestimate the degree to which people traveled, and teachings were shared or spread via the Silk Road and other trade routes between East and West, throughout our history. It doesn’t help that our mainstream historians are hesitant to acknowledge Eastern influence on Western thought. So, with all this cross-pollination, why are the West and East not identical?

Wisdom in Contrast

east and westThe most striking difference to me between East and West, in terms of the mysteries, is that in the East they simply aren’t mysteries. There isn’t much secrecy in Vedantic, Buddhist, or Taoist traditions, teachers are prone to publicly say things like, “So long as God seems to be outside and far away, there is ignorance. But when God is realised within, that is true knowledge [Sri Ramakrishna].” The volumes of Vedantic and other Eastern teachings are filled with things like this, which in the West might be merely scoffed at today, but in the past, could have led to a burning at the stake or crucifixion, for speaking so blasphemously.

Here, we arrive at what seems to me to be the chief reason for the secrecy of the Western traditions, which is the millennium of history in which the desert religions of Abraham turned from their mystic origins to the darkness of fanaticism and ignorance, and dogma spread like a plague, reigning over the West with the fiery whip of religious persecution for roughly one thousand years. While our history lessons often breeze over this period as the “Dark Ages,” with some discussion of feudalism and monarchy, the harsh reality is that Western culture underwent an intellectual and religious cleansing, where all ideas that ran contrary to the dogmas of the church (or the mosque) were punished by torture, imprisonment, and gruesome death.

No wonder, then, that those who held the wisdom of the ancient traditions of the West were forced to seek shelter in organizations like operative freemasonry, which provided secrecy, as well as a highly effective organizational structure, and fertile ground for the symbolic coding of wisdom in the tools and principles of masonry. Meanwhile, our Eastern neighbors, safeguarded by distance, geographical features like the himalayas, and their own kingdoms and power structures, held the wisdom passed on from ancient times, and continued teaching it in a relatively open manner. This is an oversimplification, but is generally more accurate than not, I would say.

Aside from being hidden vs. open, what else separates West from East? Perhaps there is a more essential difference, due to differences in temperament and culture of the two peoples, shaped in part by their climates. I could make an argument that the harsh climates of Europe, mostly in the North, bred a spirituality more focused on action, intention, and the overcoming of obstacles, while mostly tropical Eastern environments, particularly in India, bred a spirituality with a more passive focus on meditation and surrender. This theory may have some merit, but ultimately we’ll never know for sure. It does seem to me that the West is more focused on building and actively working to perfect the human, while the East is more about dissolving, letting go, and becoming free from attachment.

At the risk being accused of over-simplifying neuroscience, the general dichotomy of the left and right sides of the brain could also be said to correspond to the same principle. In many ways, West and East are akin to the left and right. The West/Left is all about clearly defined logic, boundaries, and places a greater emphasis on intellect; the East/Right is more about direct perception, dissolving boundaries, and places greater emphasis on intuitive realizations. With all these differences, is there common ground? What is the corpus callosum of East and West?

The Bridge and the Stairway

philosophyI would say absolutely, and as the beginning of this post alludes to, there are striking similarities, at times, between the teachings of the Lodge or Western esotericism in general, and that of the Swamis. Both speak of the human condition as a state of darkness and ignorance striving for light; both design their sacred structures to resemble the human body; both tend towards idealism, or the belief that consciousness rather than matter is fundamental; both ultimately teach that God dwells within.

The commonalities are surely greater than the differences, and the essence, I believe, is one. In many ways, co-masonry in particular may be an excellent bridge between the two systems, with its close ties to theosophy, a much more Eastern tradition than many of the other Western systems, and its focus on adopting the feminine into the masculine lodge. Whatever the bridge we use, it seems clear to me that we must blend East and West, right and left, action and contemplation, intellect and intuition, if we are ever to rise above, and climb the stairway to a greater truth, some transcendent gnosis.

Ultimately, I believe that we are all approximating this same truth, like a middle point of a circle which both East and West circumambulate in their own ways. The classical human mystical experience, which all these traditions are ultimately based on, seems to be more-or-less universal across cultures, and to differ only in it’s interpretation post-experience, and the cultural context which either allows it to flourish, or forces it to hide and conceal itself. Either way, the truth will out, and the light will not be concealed for long, for it is what every human on this planet thirsts for, in the depths of their soul.

The Freemason’s Words: Can the Secrets be Googled?

The Freemason’s Words: Can the Secrets be Googled?

In a discussion with a few masonic friends recently, someone asked the question:  Why are oral traditions fading away? One could dispute the premise. Still, I think the brother was onto something.  Are oral traditions still relevant? Are they slowly being replaced with technology?

In its plainest form, an oral tradition is information passed down through the generations by word of mouth that is not written.  Examples might be legends, stories, proverbs, riddles and so on. Certain modes of recognition, including masonic words and passwords are considered part of the oral tradition in Freemasonry.

Where did masonic customs originate?  The tradition becomes more understandable if we look back before the 1600’s. At that time, masonic lodges were stonemasons’ guilds of builders whose “secrets” concerned how to construct buildings. The hidden modes of1Modes of Recognition recognition, whether they were certain passwords or handshakes, were a way to identify an impostor passing himself off as the real thing. The “operative” masons were artisans that were the best at their craft. 

For reasons that are still not entirely clear, lodges evolved from “operative” to “speculative” builders. The “speculative” masons were different in that they became more interested in arcane studies. Their secrets were no longer building trade secrets but based on moral and philosophical concepts. When Masonry identified itself as a speculative craft, it placed the meanings of its allegories and symbols within a realm that is more esoteric.

Some say that these more esoteric secrets were inspired from ancient traditions – such as  Rosicrucianism, Gnosticism, or Hermeticism – however the theory is hotly debated. An opposite view is that the passwords in freemasonry are not meaningful at all.  They are not particularly earth-shattering, nor are they exactly secret. I have heard many times recently – “just google them.”

This current debate begs the question. When it comes to a mason’s words, are they a meaningless carry-over from former times? Or to the contrary, do they have some An_encyclopaedia_of_freemasonry_and_its_kindred_sciences_-_comprising_the_whole_range_of_arts,_sciences_and_literature_as_connected_with_the_institution_(1887)_(14762810774)deeper significance for masons today?

Definitions by Albert G. Mackey

Usually when I have a question or questions that I have been wondering about, I must confess I use any resource available, including the internet to research that topic and related topics. At the same time, I am very careful. There are many things that I will read “everyone knows” that are simply untrue. It is amazing how many things fit this category.

Often when confronted with some sort of puzzle in masonic research I go to Mackey’s Encyclopedia of Freemasonry. In this case, he lays out some very interesting distinctions between the various kinds of masonic words.

Mackey gives several different definitions – 

  1. Recognition Word: Identifies one brother to another as a means of recognition.
  2. Lost Word: Relates to the mythical history of a venerated lost word in which a temporary word was substituted.
  3. Sacred Word: Applies to the unique word of each degree, to indicate its peculiarly sacred character.
  4. Significant Word: Used as a word that is equivalent to a sign in each degree of the craft.
  5. True Word: Indicates a symbol of Divine Truth.

As you can easily see, he illustrates a hierarchy of words.  Some words, like recognition words, are more matter of fact, the ones that can be transmitted mouth to ear.  But other words, like the True Word are more mysterious. The True Word, he says, is the most philosophic and sublime.

The Word becomes the symbol of Divine Truth, the loss of which and the search for it constitute the whole system of Speculative Freemasonry.  ~ Bro. Albert Mackey 

Is it possible, then, that the real secrets of Masonry cannot be heard by the ear or uttered in words? If this is true, where are the secrets hidden?8097861684_b0d6213661_z

When faced with deep philosophical questions it’s sometimes nice to look at old allegories for wisdom. Here’s one of my favorites.

Man’s Divinity: Where to Hide the Stolen Jewel?

There was a time in the history of the race when the gods stole from man his divinity, and meeting in a high conclave, sought to decide where to hide that which they had stolen.

One god suggested that they hide it on another planet, for there man could not find it, but another god arose and said that man was innately a great traveler and they had no guarantee that, eventually, he might not find his way there. 

“Let us,” he said, “hide it in the depths of the sea, at the bottom of the ocean for there it will be safe.” 

But again, a dissenting voice was heart, and it was pointed out that man was great natural investigator, and that he might someday succeed in penetrating to the deepest depths, as well, as the greatest heights.

(As you might suspect, the problematic discussion ends with one member of the conclave suggesting as the final hiding place the following location…)

“Let us hide the stolen jewel of man’s divinity within himself, for there he will never look for it.”* 

The Secrets of True Masonry

Sometimes when we think of The Craft, we only think of meetings, dues, minutes, and rituals, etc. True Masonry, however, is a system of enlightenment. It is a quest for the hidden within us, the precious jewel. The Lodge is a bastion of virtue. Add to this the desire to live the high principles of Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth. Then add the passion for creativity to make the “builder’s art” truly artistic through the Arts and Sciences.

BEHOLD!  You have found the true secrets of Masonry.

Like all the things most worth knowing, no one can know it for another, and no one can 330px-Da_Vinci_Vitruve_Luc_Viatourknow it alone. It is known only in fellowship – by the touch of life upon life, hand to hand, breast to breast, spirit upon spirit.

The secrets are a way for Masons to bond with another. It’s something we all share together. Each person knows “The Word” according to his own quest and capacity.

Humanity has always been filled with curiosity about things unknown or unseen.  I like to think that oral traditions have not disappeared. Their settings may change, but their power and use remain.

Can the secrets be Googled? Sure, you may find some interesting facts about the Craft. In the end, however, the best hiding places for the mason’s mysteries are where we least expect them.

The attentive ear receives the sound from the instructive tongue, and the mysteries of Freemasonry are safely lodged in the repository of faithful breasts. ~ Masonic Monitor

*Note: The ancient allegory can be referenced in Foster Bailey’s Spirit of Masonry.