What are the Freemasons?

Freemasons are a fraternal society with a centuries old focus on education, charitable works, and the welfare and self-improvement of our members and all mankind.  We follow traditions that are rooted in the ancient stone mason guilds of Europe.  Masonic groups, also called lodges, meet regularly in just about every town in America, England, and much of the rest of the world.  Though the long history of Masonry is undeniably peppered with the occasional scandal - this being a human endeavor, after all - the overwhelming majority of Masonic activity has been the story of many millions of men coming together over hundreds of years to promote and practice tolerance, friendship, education, morality, and charity.

What do Freemasons do?

There are many opportunities to get involved, but each Mason chooses for himself how he participates.  Longtime members are fond of saying that what you get out is proportional to what you put in.  Attending lodge meetings, participating in masonic rituals, and sitting down to dinner together provides the basic framework that supports everything else.  Organized social events, charity drives, fundraisers, and educational seminars are all commonly found on the calendar each year.  Masonic organizations are estimated to contribute nearly $2,000,000 to charity every day.  Every lodge has it's own traditions; for example Everett #137 supports several local educational charities, including student scholarships, and hosts events to fund those initiatives like car shows and community yard sales.  Masons frequently travel to other lodges and take pleasure in finding a warm brotherly reception whenever they do.  Here in Washington a favorite benefit for many Masons is access the spectacular private campground at the Masonic Park near Granite Falls.

There are also "appendant bodies" which are affiliated organizations who require membership in the Freemasons as part of their conditions for membership.  Examples include the Scottish and York Rites, Order of the Eastern Star (for female relatives of Masons as well as Masons), the Nile Shrine, and many others.  Each of these has their own activities and charitable causes.  There are also organizations for youth like DeMolay, Job's Daughters, and the International Order of the Rainbow for Girls that were started by and are supported by Masons, though today many are independent organizations that do not require masonic affiliation.  The possibilities for getting involved as a Mason are just about endless, but it all begins with joining a lodge.

What are the Masonic Degrees?

The cornerstone of our organization consists of the three degrees of Masonry and the rituals associated with them.  The masonic path begins when a man petitions to become a Mason, undergoes the application process, and is approved for membership, but even then he is still only considered a candidate.  It's not until he has gone through the ritual of the first degree that he becomes an "Entered Apprentice" and can rightfully call himself a Mason and attend a masonic lodge.  From there, an apprentice must study and contemplate the meaning and symbolism of each degree and prove his proficiency in it before he can pass to the next one, becoming next a "Fellowcraft Mason" and then finally a "Master Mason."

Each degree involves swearing to uphold certain obligations to the lodge and brother Masons; these are meant to bind Masons together and give us each a sense personal responsibility for upholding Masonic virtues, and for the well being of our brothers.  Each degree adds a layer of rights and responsibilities, and reveals a new body of knowledge to the traveler on the Masonic journey.  This knowledge concerns Masonic traditions, practices, and values, how to conduct yourself as a Mason, and how to identify yourself to other Masons.  When a man reaches the third degree, he becomes full, voting, dues-paying member of the organization.  There is no higher status among Masons than that of a Master Mason; no higher degrees to attain.  There are other Masonic organizations who confer their own degrees, for example the Scottish Right, but none of these is considered to be an advancement above or beyond the degree of Master Mason.  They merely provide supplemental knowledge.

Is Freemasonry a religion?

No.  Freemasonry does not specify, require, or endorse any specific form of worship or belief.  Each of the worlds major religions can claim men among their faithful who are also Freemasons, and there are Masons who follow no specific religion.  In fact, discussion of religion (and politics) is expressly forbidden in lodge.  All Masons, however, share a belief in a higher power, and have openly professed that belief in the due course of becoming a Mason.  Furthermore, we typically open and close our meetings by offering a short, non-sectarian prayer to the "Supreme Architect of the Universe." 

The language used in reference to the Divine is often reminiscent of Christian tradition, given that most of our rituals originate in Europe at a time when the various Christian churches were dominant forces in European society.  Stories and passages out of Judeo-Christian tradition play a role in some masonic rituals, and the Christian Bible is used symbolically to represent our shared faith in God, though other works of scripture from non-Christian religions have also been used symbolically in the same way.  Apart from a belief in God there is no specific requirement levied on Masons concerning their faith; each man is entitled to interpret the symbology of Masonry in accordance with his own conscience, and no other Mason will challenge him on it.

Can an atheist be a Freemason?

A dictionary definition of the word atheist is "a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings."  An atheist of that description would find many of Freemasonry's traditions to be incongruous with their beliefs.  Masonry does not dictate any specifics regarding a man's faith in God, but all Masons do share and profess such a faith.  In the course of becoming a Mason, our hypothetical atheist would have to claim such a faith and then partake regular prayers to a God in who's existence he disbelieves.  Any moral man would find such deceit repugnant, and ultimately Masons are expected to cherish and promote moral behavior. 

Short answer: no, a man cannot be an atheist and become a Mason in good faith.

Is Freemasonry a secret society?

No.  Masonic lodge buildings are easy to find, our meeting times and places listed publicly, our community involvement advertised widely.  Many Masons proudly display their membership by wearing masonic jewelry (rings, watches, etc.) or by putting masonic bumper stickers on their cars; these days some even get masonic tattoos.  Some state governments even issue official masonic themed vehicle license plates.  However, we do conduct our meetings in private and keep the content and meaning of our traditions to ourselves, not unlike most businesses and many civil organizations the world over.

Why not just make it all public then?

In a word: tradition. 

In a few more words: the practice of secured, private meetings comes from of the ancient stone mason trade guilds.  In ages past when strict class divisions and even feudalism were the norm, men of any class who learned the art and science of stone masonry were almost uniquely respected by kings and peasants alike.  Who else could build your cathedrals or repair your bridges and buildings?  As with any trade secrets, the professional knowledge of stone masonry was most economically valuable if kept secret from non-masons; if it became too freely available, any man with a set of tools and a sturdy work apron could claim to be qualified.  So to protect their secrets, status, and incomes, masonic craft guilds developed ways to keep their knowledge safe and to identify genuine masons from fakes. 

Masons in a town or wider area would periodically meet privately in "lodges" - carefully guarded meetings where the secrets of stone masonry could be passed safely from master masons to worthy apprentices - and men who came from the many strata of society found themselves seated together side by side as brothers as much as co-workers.  In the lodge room there was no further distinction among them beyond master and apprentice, and tradition holds that even kings and princes would sometimes attend Masonic lodges and sit among the craftsmen as brothers.  Because of this, within the lodge room masons developed an at-the-time revolutionary philosophy that today might seem commonplace: that all men deserve to be treated as equals, that education is the duty as well as the privilege of each individual, and that brotherly love and charity should be fostered at every opportunity, not just among Masons, but among all mankind.

The craft of shaping stone into architecture has long since given way to more modern methods, but the craft of teaching and practicing this philosophy lives on in today's Masonic lodges.  Facing technological irrelevancy, stone masons began accepting more and more "speculative" masons into their ranks, men who did not work in stone but who were attracted to the mason's creed and brotherhood.  By the 1700's many lodges in England consisted entirely of speculative masons, men from all walks of life who treasured the opportunity that the lodge room provided to bridge the social and sectarian divides of that era.  These lodges began organizing more formally across the country, standardizing the rituals and traditions as they did so, which gave rise to the form of masonry we see practiced most widely across the world today.  Our modern lodges are the direct descendants of those ancient craft guilds, but today nearly all masons are of the speculative variety. 

The modern lodge is a fraternal society where men of different faiths, races, creeds, and backgrounds come together and set aside those differences in order to teach and learn from one another, organize charitable projects, and enjoy the fellowship that follows from doing this work together.  We carry on the rituals and forms of our ancient predecessors, voluntarily binding ourselves under solemn obligations to keep and perform those traditions and to support one another in these endeavors.  The Masonic craft practiced today is one of striving to continually make ourselves into better men by strengthening our virtues and tempering our vices; we do this in a shared belief that doing so best follows the designs of the "Supreme Architect of the Universe", whatever our personal beliefs about the nature of that Architect.