I might surprise many of you with the following confession: I once was an atheist. What? Freemasonry specifically bans atheists. Please note, I said WAS. I know that we’re specifically not supposed to discuss religion, but for the purposes of this article I need to provide my experiences as background to my broader point.
You see my brethren, I was raised as a Roman Catholic. I attended St. Joseph Catholic School in Bradley, Illinois from Grade 1 to Grade 8. I was an altar boy, I went to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation. I’ve always had an unhealthy relationship with Catholicism. For example, I can remember my baptism. That’s because I was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church when I was five years old. Long story short, my maternal Grandmother would not bless my parent’s marriage. This meant that the Catholic Church wouldn’t bless my parent’s marriage. Hence, The Catholic Church wouldn’t baptize yours truly. For years after this, my late uncle, Dennis Zajac, recalled that he thought that my father’s name was SOB before he met him. This due to my Grandmother’s insistence on calling him a Son of a….you know what.
As I enjoyed an education in the Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois, I began to question my own beliefs. I started to understand how the Roman Catholic religion took “pagan” Gods and made them into saints as well as their solstice celebrations and made them into Religious Holidays or as they call them Holy Days of Obligation. I studied and minored in Philosophy. My favorite philosophers were for the most part atheists. I also had difficulty with what I saw as a pay for salvation model of organized religion. Time and time again, the topic of the homily would be not regarding the scripture, but regarding how the congregation needed to tithe more to the church. While many of our families were tithing as much as they could, the idea that the Roman Catholic Church would need more money seemed preposterous to me. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the Catholic Church. It would seem that when I would attend religious services with friends, who were from other denominations, the message was the same. So I turned away from God. I attempted to live my life ethically without the idea of God and an afterlife.
I don’t know how many of my brethren believe in superstitions, but one that is prevalent in my family is seeing a bird in the house prior to a family member’s death. Prior to my Great Grandmothers death, my brother who was 2 or 3 at the time, came to my dad in great excitement talking about the bird that was in his room. My dad and I quickly ran to my brother’s room. My brother, Scott, was adamant about the bird, his face reflecting the amazement of what he was seeing. There was no bird that we could see, however it was clear to me that it was one that my brother could see. Shortly thereafter, we received the news that my Great Grandmother had passed away. Mother’s Day in 2002 was the last time that I saw my aforementioned Uncle Dennis alive. He and his wife, my Aunt Carol (my mother’s sister) were saying their goodbyes to myself and my family at my parent’s house. What I can only describe as a spectral flaming black bird flew over the head of my Uncle. I knew right away what this meant. I also knew by gauging the reactions of my family that no one else had seen this. He passed away a week or so later of a brain aneurism.
I feel a tremendous amount of guilt regarding this. I remember calling my parents and asking if they knew if Uncle Dennis and Aunt Carol had made it home safely. I didn’t explain to them until after his passing what I had seen. I had only told my wife at the time, what I had seen. I remember emailing my uncle and asking him to go get checked out. I didn’t tell him why, other than I was worried about his health. I didn’t want him to think that I was nuts. Now I wonder and deal with the what-ifs regarding it. Would he have believed me if I had been honest with him? Could I have somehow prevented what happened? I will never know until I meet him again.
There was one positive that came out of this experience. It solidified my belief in the Grand Architect. I knew right then and there that there was something bigger than I. That there were things that science couldn’t explain, my vision of the bird for example. I understood that the world wasn’t just controlled by science, but that science and scientific principles are our understanding of how the Great Architect designed the universe. Science was, to borrow some Masonic ritual from the non-secret (non-ciphered) work of the Grand Lodge of Illinois, the guiding force for ‘That All-Seeing eye whom the sun, moon, and stars obey, and under whose watchful care even comets perform their stupendous revolutions.’ I was, for lack of a better term, brought to light in that moment, many years before it happened in a Masonic Lodge. But the question remains, had I not undergone this supernatural event, would I have continued to be an atheist? But more importantly, for an organization that promotes religious tolerance, why do we ban atheists?
Historically, the operative Stone Masons from whence we came would most likely have been Catholic as they were working on the great cathedrals. In fact, looking at the Halliwell Manuscript, or Regius Poem, which is dated to circa 1390 – 1425, we can see plainly under the points that the very first point says: “Anyone who wants to know this Craft Must love God and Holy Church”. So it can be seen, from the earliest written points in Operative History, that belief in God was without question vital to a man learning the craft of Masonry. This would have then been carried into speculative Freemasonry, but as we can see by the time that Anderson wrote his constitutions that only a belief in God was required, and that a particular religious belief was not: “A Mason is oblig’d 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. But though in ancient Times Masons were charg’d in every Country to be of the Religion of that Country or Nation, whatever it was, yet ’tis now thought more expedient only to oblige them to that Religion in which all Men agree, leaving their particular Opinions to themselves; that is, to be good Men and true, or Men of Honour and Honesty, by whatever Denominations or Persuasions they may be distinguish’d; whereby Masonry becomes the Center of Union, and the Means of conciliating true Friendship among Persons that must have remain’d at a perpetual Distance.”
The argument regarding not allowing Atheists into our Fraternity usually falls back to the standard Freemasonic defense for not changing ritual or bylaws, which is: “That’s the way it’s always been!” However, if we look at the Halliwell Manuscript again, we can see under the fifth article: “The fifth article is very good: That the apprentice must be of lawful blood, The Master shall not, for any reason, Make one an apprentice who is deformed; It is necessary, as you know, That all of his limbs are whole. It would be a great shame on the Craft To make a lame or limping man an apprentice, Because such an imperfect man Would be of little good to the Craft; Everyone must know this. The Craft should have a sound worker; A crippled man cannot work well, This will be obvious right away.” So by this rationale, we shouldn’t allow any man who is missing a limb to become a Freemason, because that’s the way it was. However, somewhere along the way, Grand Lodges came to their senses regarding this, and they changed their by-laws and/or ritual to allow it.
To play devil’s advocate (literally), what would you do if you interviewed a candidate who expressed their belief in God only to find out after election that they worshipped Satan and requested to take their oath on a Satanic Bible? We as an organization preach religious tolerance. If this individual requested this, isn’t it our duty to accommodate them? Now of course I being facetious here, but my point is this, would you trust the obligation of a man taken on Satanic Bible above one taken with no volume of sacred law, or upon on A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking? My guess is that you would trust the atheist more. Shouldn’t what really matters be the character of the man and not the belief/or non-belief in God? Well, yes, but….
Unlike the example of the change of allowing someone missing a limb to become a Freemason, where there was perhaps a one word change in ritual; Allowing Atheists to become Freemasons would fundamentally change the Craft because our core beliefs and rituals are dependent upon a belief in God. To remove God from the lodge, would be to remove the letter ‘G’, from above the Master’s chair; to remove the lodge being dedicated to him and the Saints Johns of Jerusalem, is to remove the foundation of Masonry itself. While I can argue that an atheist can be just as ethical as a man of faith, I cannot envision American Blue Lodge Masonry without faith in God as a core belief. We begin and end our proceedings by invoking the blessing of deity. We ask the candidate almost immediately upon their entrance to the lodge for their very first time to attend to prayer and in whom they place their trust. Their answer is a declaration of faith in deity, and is answered that their faith is well founded.
Furthermore, the ritual makes multiple references to God, the volume of the sacred law and our submission to our faith in deity. In fact, if we use Mackey’s definition of the Great Architect of the Universe, it does a very good job of arguing why Deity is important to Freemasonry: “The title applied in the technical language of Freemasonry to the Deity. It is appropriate that a society founded on the principles of architecture, which symbolizes the terms of that science to moral purposes, and whose members profess to be the architects of a spiritual temple, should view the Divine Being, under whose holy law they are constructing that edifice, as their Master Builder of Great Architect. Sometimes, but less correctly, the title "Grand Architect of the Universe" is found.” Esoterically and allegorically, our rituals cannot be understood without a tie to the belief in the Grand Architect. Our ritual is steeped with references to Old Testament characters which uses them to teach our allegorical lessons of our degrees. The volume of the sacred law is one of the Great Lights of Masonry, and is the rule and guide of our faith.
So, I cannot in good conscience support an Atheist joining regular Blue Lodge Freemasonry given the complex relationship between having faith in a deity and the ritual. Let this be clear, I personally have nothing against Atheism. I just do not see what Freemasonry offers to the atheist other than placing them in an untenable position. Should one want to join, and is willing to be deceitful to do so, then we would never know what is truly in their heart. However, to do so, would be against the Masonic tenet of Truth. As we are taught: “Truth is a divine attribute, and the foundation of every virtue. To be good and true is the first lesson we are taught in Masonry.” If you cannot be good and true, with the Masonic definition of truth being a divine attribute (from God), then you cannot be a Mason. Since Atheists, do not believe in God, then they cannot be true from our Masonic Point of view. Ergo, they cannot be a Freemason in a regular Lodge of Freemasons.