The Question of Religion and the Brotherhood

Many people wonder whether the Freemasons are a religious organization. Although they claim to be no more religious than any Rotary Club or other social organization, their rituals do have strong spiritual overtones.

The Shriners
In 1870, a new organization formed out of the Freemasons, which was called "The Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine," or the "Shriners." To become a Shriner, a man must first rise to the Third Degree (Mastor Mason) in the Blue Lodge. After becoming a Master Mason, a man can belong to any Masonic group that has Blue Lodge Masonry as a prerequisite. The Shriners are known for their:
  • signature red fezzes - a tribute to the organization’s Arabic heritage
  • fun attitude - they are often clowns in circuses and parades
  • great philanthropy - Shriners hospitals around the country provide free care to children

People of all religions are free to join the Freemasons, and religion is never overtly discussed during meetings. However, every member must profess a belief in a universal Supreme Being, whom the Freemasons refer to as the "Great Architect of the Universe." As is the case with most religions, Masons are expected to be morally upright individuals. Members swear oaths to the Book of the Sacred Law, which, depending on the Lodge, can be the Jewish Old Testament, the Christian New Testament or even the Islamic Koran.

Entering the Brotherhood
Given the clandestine nature of the Freemasons, it's not surprising that they give careful consideration before admitting new members. To join, a man must fill out a petition and obtain two sponsors within the Lodge. He will then be voted in by secret ballot. Potential new members are asked whether they believe in God, and they must answer "yes" to be admitted. Although they don't have to be wealthy, members must have enough money to pay membership fees and to make the regular charitable donations that are expected of all Freemasons.

New Freemasons start out as Entered Apprentices. During the initiation ceremony, the Freemasons recount the building of King Solomon's Temple and the murder of Hiram Abiff. The new member is blindfolded and confronted by three men, who order him to reveal the Freemasons' secrets. He swears he will not tell, and then pretends to die and be resurrected into Masonry.

Freemasons must then rise through two more degrees, Freecraft Mason and Master Mason, after they have become proficient in the lessons of the previous degree. As a member rises through the degrees, he becomes privy to more and more of the Freemasons' secrets.

Mason
Photo courtesy of Jahrundert
Freemason initiation ceremony, 18th century.

After completing the Master Mason degree, a member can reach the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch, at which time the name of the Great Architect of the Universe is finally revealed to him. The name is reportedly Jahbulon—Jah for Jahweh, the God of the Hebrews; Bul for Baal, the ancient Canaanite fertility god who was considered evil for competing with Jahweh for the Israelites' allegiance; and On for Osiris, the ancient Egyptian god of the underworld.

Freemasons at each level swear never to reveal the Freemasons' secrets. The punishments for doing so become progressively more severe with each successive level. An Apprentice Mason's tongue is torn out; a Freecraft Mason's heart is torn out; a Master Mason's bowels are burned; and a Royal Arch has the top of his skull sliced off (many Masons dispute this claim, however, saying that their rites are nowhere near this sinister).

Although most Freemasons never progress past level three, most sources agree that there are 33 degrees in total. The York Rite includes only the first 13 of these levels, and they differ from the Scottish Rite. They may also differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction:

33 Degrees of the Freemasons
1. Entered Apprentice 12. Grand Master Architect 23. Chief of the Tabernacle
2. Fellow Craft 13. Royal Arch of Enoch 24. Prince of the Tabernacle
3. Master Mason 14. Scottish Knight of Perfection 25. King of the Brazen Serpent
4. Secret Master 15. Knight of the Sword, or of the East 26. Prince of Mercy
5. Perfect Master 16. Prince of Jerusalem 27. Commander of the Temple
6. Intimate Secretary 17. Knight of the East and West 28. Knight of the Sun
7. Provost and Judge 18. Knight of the Pelican and Eagle and Sovereign Prince Rose Croix of Heredom 29. Knight of St. Andrew
8. Intendant of the Building 19. Grand Pontiff 30. Grand Elected Knight Kadosh, Knight of the Black and White Eagle
9. Elect of Nine 20. Venerable Grand Master 31. Grand Inspector Inquisitor Commander
10. Elect of Fifteen 21. Patriarch Noachite 32. Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret
11. Sublime Elect 22. Prince of Libanus 33. Grand Inspector General