In fact, amongst the many myths and dispersions cast against our fraternity, the most difficult to coherently dispel has been those rumors that seek to depict the craft as a religious body. Many a Grand Lodge have sought to dispel this myth by outright denial of this accusation, pointing towards the crafts intolerance for religious discussion and the niche discrepancies between our practices and the dictionary definition of organized religion. Whilst it is true that every freemason must trust his faith in a belief of a supreme being, the instant ambiguity of that requirement in conjunction with its lack of prescriptive dogma, should indicate to an attentive reader, that freemasonry is inherently outside the scope and purpose of organized religion.
In his work The Lost Keys of Freemasonry, Manly P. Hall eloquently contended that “The true mason realizes… it is life which he considers when measuring the worth of a brother, It is to this life that he appeals for a recognition of spiritual unity”. This contention is even more plainly put in Mark E. Koltko-Rivera’s work entitled Freemasonry: An Introduction, where he argues that “whilst freemasonry focuses on moral behavior and spirituality, it itself is not a religion. Freemasonry uses many spiritual symbols, however Freemasonry offers no savior or plan for salvation, there is no priesthood or ministry, although it is not opposed to such things, but it does not have any of its own to offer”.
The distinction between spirituality and religion is understandably a difficult concept to differentiate and in many cases can become conflated in discussion. For what is spiritual to one person, may be insignificant to another and is very much embroiled in the individual character and perspective of the prospective participant.
Nonetheless it is the contention of this author, that the subjective spirituality of Freemasonry and its capacity to engage the moral and intrinsic questions about a mans individual character, is its greatest asset in a period where cultural skepticism is imbedded in the minds of our modern society. It is not unreasonable to observe, that a majority of modern men are less religious, more skeptical and far less tolerant of dogmatic interventions, that some have justly become to perceive as contrary to a modern instinct to question the status quo and to approach questions of life and existence from the perspective of individual reason. Individual morality, for many young men, is found more at home in a class of ethics rather than faith and less certainty is had about the role of ones spiritual dispositions in fostering a meaningful understanding of the world around us.
The late Christopher Hitchens literary work God is Not Great is arguably one of the 21st centuries most compelling personifications of this growing cultural skepticism. Hitchens, unafraid to tackle the biggest questions of faith and reason, ironically provides a fascinating insight about the ethos of modern society with his view of there being a “Need of a New Enlightenment”. This enlightenment he contends “will base itself on the proposition that the proper study of mankind is man and woman”. Hitchens continues that enlightenment “is within the compass of the average person… [through the] study of literature and poetry… the unfettered pursuit of scientific inquiry… [with the aim] to ‘know yourself’ as the Greeks, gently suggested in the consolations of philosophy”.
Whilst Hitchens himself was a profound antagonist of religion and a self professed servant to his own sense of infallible reason and logic, one cant help but to observe that perhaps the “enlightenment” he professes is in fact more at home with spirituality than one would first think to perceive. In fact, as many a Freemason may have identified, the Hitchens “enlightenment” resembles a great deal to that of the allegorical contemplations of the three degrees in craft Masonry. In the first degree of Freemasonry a brother is invited to consider the useful lessons of natural equality and mutual dependence. The allegory that as mortal beings we are but brought into this world in darkness for which we may only avail ourselves through an understanding of and respect of our fellow man, bears great similarity to Hitchens enlightenment. Further, the concept that true enlightenment is achieved through a strong pursuit in an education of nature, the liberal arts and science is a key lesson of the second degree. This degree gives encouragement for man to avail himself of the secrets of nature and science is presented as an important path to attaining intellectual truth. However, it is the third degree in freemasonry, with its focus on our inevitable mortality and a contemplation of our finite time on earth, that truly rounds off our capacity to truly “know yourself”.
However, unlike Hitchens, Freemasonry through its avid contemplation of these lessons, imbeds itself in its ultimate understanding, that whilst these lessons are founded in rationality, that it is through the spiritual contemplation of their greater meaning that they bear true attachment to our lives and characters. As eloquently put by Brother Owen Shieh in his publication Journey on the Level, “Regardless of the names assigned to truth (emblematical of the supreme being) the key point is that the candidate must believe that there is something more, something unknown and something beyond our limited understanding of the material world – something that relates to the underlying order or the universe and to the true nature of our consciousness”.
Freemasonry, unequivocally, has the capacity to provide for the modern man an opportunity to expand their understanding of their own intellectual, philosophical and ultimately spiritual perception of the world and their humanity. As has been demonstrated when deconstructing Hitchens “Enlightenment”, the quest for a rational understanding of the world has been grounded in the traditions of the craft for hundreds of years and underpinned in its significance by spirituality. Modern societies propensity towards cultural skepticism has been a true challenge to religion and its role in the lives of younger generations. However, as already indicated, Freemasonry is not a religion. Through freemasonry a modern man has the opportunity to confront and contemplate life’s most important questions and through the spirituality of allegorical contemplation can bridge the divides of diversity to better develop their subjective intellect and morality.
For the modern man, Freemasonry is free of dogmatic instruction, subject to individual reason and veiled in spirituality.