Editor’s note: In this article, Roy describes another non-theistic spirituality: non-theistic Freemasonry. Like Naturalistic Paganism, Secular Buddhism, and others, this adds to the many naturalistic spiritualities sprouting up around us – another approach to practice that shares our worldview.
I have been involved in ‘heathen circles’ for over a decade. Not much outside of the groups that I am involved in, but I do surf around the web, read books, etc. Until recently I do not think I was aware of ‘the non-theistic’ discussion. I somehow ran into the Humanistic Paganism blog and one of the first things I saw was that there was a book on the way. I just started to read “Godless Paganism” and the introduction reminds me a lot of discussions within the larger world of Freemasonry (that I am newer to). I thought perhaps you readers would be interested to learn about similar discussions within an apparently different ‘world’.
A little history of Freemasonry
Because I don’t know how much you know about Freemasonry, I will introduce the subject shortly. Much can be found on other places on the internet, so this need not be too long.
In 1717 four London “lodges” (Masonic working places) joined to become the first “Grand Lodge”. Of course there have been lodges before that time, but 1717 is usually regarded as the year in which Freemasonry ‘started’. In 1723 James Anderson (1679-1739) published the first version of the “Constitutions of the Free-Masons”. This, and even more the revised version of 1738, is still the basis of Freemasonry.
James Anderson was a Scottish preacher and this shows in his Constitutions. 1717 Of course also was a very Christian period in British history. This is how a sentence such as: “a Mason is obliged by his tenure to obey the moral law; and if he rightly understands the art, he will never be a stupid Atheist, nor an irreligious libertine” could find its way into the Constitutions. The political preference of the early Freemasons shines through a bit in this sentence of course.
During time, part of Freemasonry moved into a ‘less-Christian’ phase. Freemasonry grew and with it, the number of Grand Lodges did (usually one per country, or (in the USA), one per state). People started to feel the need to write down when a group is a ‘real’ Masonic lodge. “Landmarks” were written down with rules about “regularity” as it is called. Some of the most famous of these Landmarks were written by the American Albert Mackey (1807-1881). Let me name a few of them:
- That every Mason must believe in the existence of God as the Grand Architect of the Universe.
- That every Mason must believe in a resurrection to a future life.
- That a book of the law of God must constitute an indispensable part of the furniture of every lodge.
This “Grand Architect of the Universe” is a very general description of the Divine. What Mackey says here, is that you can also be a Freemason when you are Jew (a discussion of these days) or a Muslim. The “book of the law of God” would most often be a Bible, but it could just as well be a Torah or Quran. So it comes that people of different faiths join the same lodges. Some lodges always use the Bible (as a symbol of “the law of God” rather than a Christian book), in another a Jew may swear his oaths on the Torah. There are Grand lodges that still only admit Christians though.
Non-theism in France
Many people think that Freemasonry is one, worldwide organisation. This is far from the truth. From the early days there were (Grand) lodges that did not play by the rules (did not observe the Landmarks) and schisms occur. The most famous of these was the withdrawal of recognition of the Grand Orient of France in 1877 (comparable to a Grand lodge).
Continental Europe always tried to sail its own Masonic course. French Freemasons concluded that it no longer wanted to impose the “belief in something higher” on their (prospective) members. The United Grand Lodge of England was not amused and withdrew recognition which made the large Grand Orient of France “irregular”. Attempts to solve the disagreements have been made, but until today there is “regular” and “irregular” Freemasonry. Of course such schisms resulted in more schisms. A part of the Grand Orient of France wanted to remain with the United Grand Lodge of England, split off and formed their own Grand lodge.
What the Grand Orient of France had in mind was not anti-theistic Freemasonry, but “complete freedom of consciousness”. Members should make up for themselves whether or not they believed in some kind of God.
The French Revolution (1789-1799) and the rationalisation of society pushed French Freemasonry further in its development. The Bible was banned from some lodges and many lodges became downright anti-religious. There are still lodges in France and Belgium that you can not join when you are Christian! This is a stark contrast with Freemasonry in Britain, the USA and Scandinavia where Freemasonry proved to be much more conservative.
There is one more development that I want to speak about for you to get the picture.
The Persons admitted members of a Lodge must be good and true men, free-born, and of mature and discreet age, no Bondmen, no Women, no immoral or scandalous men, but of good Report.
The largest part of the Masonic world adheres to these words. Women are not allowed. Again in France, things ran differently. A woman (Marie Deraismes (1828-1894) was initiated into a men-only lodge, but left to found a mixed gender lodge in 1893 which later became Le Droit Humain (‘human rights’), still the largest mixed gender Masonic organisation. Deraismes did this with Georges Martin (1844-1916)) who wanted to correct two things in Freemasonry, the presence of some sort of God and the disallowance to initiate women. Here two developments in Freemasonry come together. It is needless to say that Le Droit Humain is not considered “regular” by most Grand lodges.
Things get even more complicated. To take France as an example. France has an organisation recognised as “regular” by most Grand lodges in the world. There are more organisations that are “irregular”, but this can be because they use no Bible at all, do not impose a Bible, admit (only) women or have other reasons to be regarded “irregular”. This does not mean that there are two Masonic ‘camps’. It is not so easy that all “irregular” organisations recognise each and every other “irregular” organisation”. Some “irregular” organisation could be men-only and does not recognise mixed gender organisations for example. Indeed, the world of Freemasonry is splintered.
Now we come to the root of this little article. As you may have guessed from the above, there are people calling themselves Freemasons, but who do not believe in ‘something higher’. Actually, there may be people who do believe in ‘something higher’, but who are still member of a lodge that does not require such a belief, because they do not want to impose their own views on their brothers (and sisters). There are also Freemasons who are downright anti-religious and there are many Freemasons who are religious and member of a variety of religions.
By and far the largest part of the world of Freemasonry is “regular”. Of course these organisations are not all the same. Some Grand lodge may want to only initiate Christians, while another is open for people of any faith. A discussion that is very contemporary is one about sexual orientation. There are Grand lodges who refuse to initiate homosexuals, while others have no problems with that. You get it, there is not one ‘Masonic code’.
Because “regular” Freemasonry is much larger than “irregular” Freemasonry, “regular” Freemasons dominate Masonic fora and discussion groups. Many of them scorn other kinds of Freemasonry and will even refuse to regard them as Freemasons in the first place. A woman on a Masonic board will often be scared away, a non-theistic Mason will not make many friends. Still, discussions about the belief in God often occurs on Masonic fora. The threads are usually started by newcomers who do not yet know what is coming when the subject is brought up. The first reply is often the quote from Anderson’s Constitutions that I gave earlier in this article. What you see frequently are discussions about Buddhism. Is Buddhism “deist” or not? Can a Buddhist be a Freemason or not? Less frequent are discussions about polytheism.
Freemasonry usually consists of open-minded people, but this open mindedness has a limit for many members. This is a not uncommon reply to a question about atheism:
While atheists cannot be made Masons in UGLE recognized lodges, Masonry does not recognize a single dogmatic definition on what God is. Men of many religious persuasions (Muslim, Wiccan, Buddhist, Episcopalian, Unitarian, etc.) up to and including private personal beliefs and theories are accepted as Brothers in Freemasonry.
The caveats on this are that as with everything there are exceptions depending on what jurisdiction you’re in. So do a bit of research on what your state/province/country’s Grand Lodge has to say on the matter.
Also, there is a quite a bit of Judeo-Christian symbolism used in Freemasonry. That is not the exclusive source of Masonry’s symbolism by any stretch but it’s prominently there.
It sounds like it that this member would agree with having quite a few of the non-theist pagans as a brother, but many others would not live up to the requirement. The weird thing is, there has been “adogmatic” Freemasonry (as they often like to call themselves, some use the term “secular”) since 1877 while the discussion seems to not have matured much since that time. The “adogmatic” Freemasons are a minority within the world of Freemasonry, just as non-theistic pagans are a minority under the pagan circus tent. The situations of both ‘groups’ seems to be similar though. There is great variety in the views of the underdogs, but as they are lumped together by the majority, this variety is not clear to many.
Perhaps non-theistic Freemasons should have a platform like non-theistic pagans have. Perhaps there are enough similarities between both ‘groups’ and their situations that both can learn from each other.
Now you non-theistic pagans have at least heard of a similar situation in a not-so-different world. A world which has the same discussions about if ritual has any meaning to an atheist, if the person with a holistic vision has a place in the family, etc., etc.
Awesome. I never heard about this before. Thank you for informing us. 🙂
The discussion often pops up on place such as Reddit. Le Droit Humain even thought it fit to make a statement on their Facebook page because LDH was called an atheistic organisation. Here is the statement:
“Le Droit Humain holds a proven pedigree or Masonic lineage but was established to realise gender equality and inclusivity, hence [our Order] argues it is not clandestine but rather accept that it is not “regular” with respect to GL’s in amity with the UGLE. It is not an Atheistic organisation, it just does not involve itself in religious or supernatural matters and wishes to remain independent of all other organisations, movements and ideologies. Members are free to and are encouraged to practice their faith and belief. There is no requirement to abandon ones faith or cultural traditions in becoming a Freemason in this obedience.
Individual Lodges are free to choose an approved ritual which includes most of the rituals available to male-only Lodges and other rituals which equally express the same regular traditional Masonic principles. French Rituals exist that make less emphasis and some no emphasis on the traditional aspects that regular masons consider essential. This does not imply Brethren using it are all atheists, but rather they do not wish to make Freemasonry the subject of any religious disagreement (they take the injunction of no religious discussion very seriously). The autonomy and sovereignty of lodges mean they are free to make this choice of ritual. Religiosity and pseudo-religiosity are not the centre of Union for the brothers and sisters, to find out what is, you would need to join.
Because of their respect for the absolute freedom of conscience of individuals they choose not to enquire (extensively) into an applicants belief; and where traditional forms of Freemasonry are practised they explain the nature of that lodge and ensure the candidate will fit the culture of that lodge. In these Lodges, the same traditional preliminary questions are asked. To the question of trust, no prompts are given, and no specific answer is expected. Personal self-realisation and service to others are goals for these Freemasons; who do not concern themselves with the private affairs and motivations of their sister or brother Freemasons.
Many erroneous assertions and generalisations are made about liberal freemasonry and unfortunately, whilst Masonic discourse is forbidden, this is unlikely to abate. The day this chasm is bridged, many “regular” Freemasons would discover the right hand of friendship eagerly and fraternally extended, though it may well be the hand of a woman.”
Thank you so much for this post, Roy! Strangely enough, a Masonic Youth organization was where I first developed my passion for ritual. It as difficult, in a sense, because while Job’s Daughters is technically open to any girl who believes in the Abrahamic God, the Christian imagery is still quite thick on the ground. So the “technicality” of belief is subordinated to the traditions of the Order, which are predominantly Christian.
Now that I am a non-theistic pagan, I look back and realize that it wasn’t our shared theological beliefs that made our rituals meaningful, powerful, and effective.
The other point that seems to be coming through here is about authority and naming. Who is a “regular” Mason? What Grand Lodge gets to claim that its version of Masonry is the “correct” one? Is this even possible? This seems analogous to the various pagan initiatory traditions, and claims to greater historical authenticity over others, as well as the various trends vying for respectability on the basis of their theological claims. Theistic Masons (like Theistic Pagans) may claim a more authentic, more “historically accurate” practice, but this of course ignores the long history of non-theistic Masonic lodges. The situation with women Freemasons and co-lodges also comes to mind.
All of this, of course, privileges the tradition of particular Grand Lodges over the philosophical principles of Freemasonry itself, something I’ve always found frustrating and counter-intuitive.