Can an atheist join the Freemasons?
September 16, 2011 10:25 AM   Subscribe

Can an atheist join the Freemasons?

A number of years ago now my father joined the Freemasons. Since then he has been very interested in having me join as well, and has done a decent job of selling it to me. The only part that's been holding me back has been that joining apparently requires you to pledge that you believe in some kind of higher power. I'm an atheist and not really comfortable with the idea of faking it. How central is this to Freemasonry? What is meant by 'higher power'? Is this something that can be addressed by a wishy-washy "I do not believe humanity is the most powerful force in the universe"?
posted by Hoopo to Religion & Philosophy (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Can your higher power be science?
posted by MegoSteve at 10:35 AM on September 16, 2011

Does he not know you are an athiest? Furthermore, Masons are not supposed to recruit, the most they are supposed to do is ask someone if they have thought about joining.

There is often prayer in lodge, if that makes you uncomfortable. Please do not lie to join the Masons, they are not a drinking society. That's the Shriners. ;)
posted by entropicamericana at 10:37 AM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

My understanding, from my longtime Mason dad, is that Masons must believe in the "immortality of the soul". I don't quite know what that means because he doesn't do a very good job explaining. But it is a thing.
posted by Pineapplicious at 10:40 AM on September 16, 2011

Requirements for membership from my local lodge include:
He must be a believer in God and in immortality. A petitioner who is unable or unwilling to express a belief in the existence of God lacks an essential qualification for the degrees in Masonry. In every such case the fee shall be returned with the information that he cannot become a Mason in this Grand Jurisdiction.
I assume that's pretty common among freemasons, but there may be exceptions.
posted by BurntHombre at 10:44 AM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

My wife is joining the Elks so I can be part of the Women's Auxiliary.
I can't join for the same reason as you and have a hard time lying about anything.
The Women's Auxiliary enjoys all the perks of membership without having to make any statement of faith.

And, no, they don't really call it the "Women's Auxiliary" anymore. I wish they did.
posted by Seamus at 10:52 AM on September 16, 2011

Someone who is openly atheist would not be welcome with our local Masons, afaik, but someone who is privately atheist and willing to say a vague pledge about a higher power would be.
posted by thirteenkiller at 10:58 AM on September 16, 2011

requires you to pledge that you believe in some kind of higher power. I'm an atheist

I don't know anything about the Freemasons, so I'm just going off the information in this thread, but I don't see how the choice is between either lying or not joining. Doesn't it depend on what "higher" means? Higher than what? Higher than human beings? People have already mentioned science. Aside from science, what about just the universe as a whole? Truth? Reason/logic? Numbers/math? Morality? Love? Now, people can have philosophical debates about whether some of these things actually exist, but do you believe any of them do and are higher powers?
posted by John Cohen at 11:06 AM on September 16, 2011

Response by poster: I'm not sure, John--the "higher power" thing I got from discussions with my Dad and his .. Master or whatever it's called (that felt weird to type) who was once a leader of his lodge, and some other Masons he introduced me to. I think explicitly they ask about your belief in a Supreme Being, however the Grand Lodge in my area says they would admit a Buddhist for example. I'm not sure if this is an indication they don't really understand Buddhism (there's no Supreme Being in Buddhism) or that there's a lot of lattitude in their idea of a "Supreme Being" and that not believing in a deity is alright so long as you're not a nihilist.

The website says:

We do not apply a theological test to a candidate. We do ask a man if he believes in God and that is the only religious test. Belief in God is faith; belief about God is theology. As freemasons we are interested in faith only and not in theology. Religion is not permitted to be discussed at masonic meetings.

Freemasonry is a completely tolerant organization. When Freemasonry accepts a Christian, or a Jew, or a Buddhist, or a Mohammedan, it does not accept him as such, but accepts him as a man, worthy to be received into the masonic fraternity.

Freemasonry stands for the values that are supreme in the life of the church and expects each member to follow his own faith and to place his duty to God above all other duties. We are sure that a member who is true to the principles he learns in Freemasonry will be a better church member because of it.

posted by Hoopo at 11:33 AM on September 16, 2011

My friend who is a freemason has specifically mentioned to me that he'd love to have me join his lodge but knows I can't be accepted as per the atheist rule. Which sucks. So, no. If nobody knows about it and you're willing to pretend I imagine it would be OK as long as you were comfortable pretending, but if anyone in the lodge knows you're an atheist they are bound by their own pledge/oath to let it be known you are an atheist before your admission is final.
posted by barc0001 at 11:35 AM on September 16, 2011

entropicamericana: "Please do not lie to join the Masons, they are not a drinking society. That's the Shriners. ;)"

Maybe this varies by lodge? I have a friend who is a Mason, and it sounds VERY much like a drinking society.
posted by Chrysostom at 1:17 PM on September 16, 2011

I am a member of a fraternal organization - a woman's group. I agree with the comments that they are not supposed to recruit. Likewise in my organization God and the Bible are referenced in every meeting. I don't think the organziation is for you because:

I'm an atheist and not really comfortable with the idea of faking it.

I joined the organization under my grandfather. Mr. BuffaloChickenWing is not a member. It is not for everyone - there is nothing wrong if it isn't for you.
posted by BuffaloChickenWing at 1:20 PM on September 16, 2011

Best answer: There is no one answer that applies to all Freemasonry, as the diversity is too vast. For example, the largest Masonic jurisdiction in France explicitly allows atheists to join. On the other hand, Scandinavian Freemasonry is limited to Christians only. There are also traditions of Freemasonry that are women-only, and traditions of Freemasonry that are open to both sexes (usually called "co-Masonry").

All you can say for sure is what applies to a specific Lodge within a specific jurisdiction. For the most part, the most established and mutually-recognized Masonic jurisdictions require that their members express a belief in God, and in the immortality of the soul. Which is to say that you must be able to honestly answer "yes" when asked "do you believe in ... ?"

That said, in all of these jurisdictions, it is also explicitly stated that each individual is free to have his own conception of what "God" (or "deity") means, and what "soul" and "immortality" mean. It would be absolutely permissible for someone to join the fraternity under the conception, for example, that "believing in God" means that you believe in some ineffable higher level of meaning and universal connectedness -- and not that there is some supernatural being looking down on us and deciding whether or not to interfere in our lives. Similarly, it would be permissible to join the fraternity under the conception that "soul" means that there is a certain "you-ness" beyond mere artifacts of neurochemical processes and that "immortality of the soul" means that in some smaller or greater way the universe will be different after you have passed on for having had you in it. So long as a person is comfortable enough with these personal definitions to say "yes" honestly to those questions (and due to those personal definitions, not afraid of the fact that the fraternity references things like god and souls and scriptures and whatnot) then there is no reason not to join.

Now, of course it is also true that there are plenty of people out there for whom the above suggested personal definitions would not qualify one to answer "yes" to those questions. But one of the interesting things about Freemasonry is that no one is allowed to ask you about your own thoughts on these matters. There are two things that are not permitted to discuss in the Lodge Room (and generally considered impolite to discuss at any time Masons are meeting "as Masons") : religion and politics. The idea is that people may naturally disagree on these matters and unable to become friends, and Masonry is about promoting "true friendship among those who might otherwise have remained perpetually at a distance."

Some of this may also come down to the individual Lodge, as suggested above. Some Lodges have a very diverse membership with Masons of many different ethnic and national heritages, of many different ages, and who subscribe to a very diverse array of spiritual beliefs. Others are less so. How well you and your beliefs might fit into a Lodge will very much depend on these things. This is why it's important to get to know the guys in the Lodge (and they you) before you might even petition for membership. And part of your discussion could be on these subjects, if you think you might fit in under a scenario such as I described above.

All that said, Freemasonry is a very old fraternity. And while ecumenicism is central to the Craft and it is ecumenical enough to include everyone from the definitions I suggested above to an evangelical Christian to a neo-pagan, it is also the fact that in 1510 in Scotland, this ecumenicism tended to be rather more of the "you can be any kind of Christian you want" kind. It has evolved past that, needless to say, but there are certainly still vestiges of this influence in Masonic ritual and practice. To be as clear as possible: bibles are seen and bible-passages are heard in Masonic Lodges. It is explained that the bibles are a symbolic representation of all religious texts (howsoever you might define that to be) and the bible-passages are non-sectarian to the point where they might as well be poetry. But they're there. If this would offend your sensibilities, then Freemasonry is not for you.
posted by slkinsey at 2:01 PM on September 16, 2011

Best answer: In Regular Freemasonry, in the purest black and white terms, the answer is no. The finer points of the application and initiation process vary from country to country and province to province, but you will likely be asked point blank early on if you believe in a Supreme Being/higher power.

In Massachusetts, USA, it's explained in one of the first degree lectures that it's necessary for new candidates to confirm that belief because otherwise no Obligation can be considered binding upon them. My personal take on this requirement is that what matters about men who are brought into the Fraternity is not so much whether they subscribe to any particular religion or how devout they are, just that they all agree that there is something bigger than us in the universe, and that as Masons they should aspire to understand and emulate it. I think it's an attempt to establish a moral baseline and context for the fraternity. (Not that I think atheists are immoral!)

Freemasonry is a peculiar institution; the rituals are based on judeo-christian tradition, but they're not really religious; meetings are opened and closed with prayers, with a Bible (or Torah, Quran, etc. depending on the makeup of the lodge) on the altar. The word "God" is thrown around a lot, but I think most Masons are mature and intelligent enough to understand that the word is a symbol for each individual's personal belief system. The book on the alter is sometimes referred to more abstractly as the "Volume of Sacred Law", which again says to me that it's more about a baseline than about it being a Bible. (Of course, there are unfortunate exceptions).

You could split hairs and build a semantic argument wherein you could truthfully answer that you believe in a supreme being (without qualifying that you mean Nature, Mathematics, Science, The Universe, whatever) and nobody would question your answer or assent to the obligations of each degree... but because the degree lectures are all built on the assumption that "Supreme Being" means something more deity-like, you might not get much out of the degrees, which are what separates Freemasonry from most other community/club type organizations.

And yes, officially, Freemasons are not supposed to recruit... but I expect guys have been privately inviting their sons and close friends to join since about 10 minutes after the first lodge was formed. On the subject of drinking: Lodges in the US tend to be more or less dry, an unfortunate lingering byproduct of the temperance movement. Lodges in the U.K. usually have their own bar, and alcohol with meals after lodge meetings. Also, you have to be a Mason to join the Shriners, although I've heard that the Shriners have kicked around the idea of dropping that requirement.

It can be a bummer; I also have friends who would be great additions to the fraternity, but they happen to be atheists. I think it's time to start a new all-inclusive secret society!
posted by usonian at 2:02 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Please do not lie to join the Masons, they are not a drinking society. That's the Shriners. ;)

If I'm not mistaken, one must first achieve the level of Master Mason first, before he can become a Shriner. They are related organizations.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:10 PM on September 16, 2011

Response by poster: I thought I'd just clear something up; my Dad and his friends aren't trying to recruit me and they wouldn't be involved in the process. They live in another province and wouldn't be my 'sponsors' or whatever it's called. For my Dad's part I think it's kind of a family tradition thing; his father and grandfather etc were freemasons, and same on my mother's side. For the rest they've just been telling me a bit about what it is, asking why I'd be interested in joining, and what to do if I decided I wanted to join.
posted by Hoopo at 2:23 PM on September 16, 2011

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