Sunday, August 3, 2014

Rough Ashlar No. 17: The Brave New World of Freemasonry

Recently, an exchange I had with a couple of brothers has given me pause to contemplate the difference between critique and hostility.

Having spent a large part of my adult life in close proximity to academia, I have come to take it for granted that adults will have developed an appreciation for critical thinking. It doesn't naturally occur to me that being critical of any aspect of the world would be construed as being inherently hostile toward it.

Since Freemasons are, at least by me, assumed to be involved on some level with self-examination as a means to self-improvement if not self-perfection, I have always assumed that they of all people would appreciate this. Animosity, even toward those with whom I disagree, has never been a part of my critique whether public or private.

It appears that at least in the case of some, I have been mistaken. For that, I am sorry, but I am more bemused. I will never likely change in this regard. I believe criticism of what we perceive as wrong, when combined with critical judgement, represents a valid means of communicating with others. I certainly will not retract those criticisms I have made concerning the flaws I see in the human institution of Freemasonry, whether they represent institutional flaws or errors in attitudes among individual members of our fraternity.

Since it is possible, even probable, that some Freemasons will view me as hostile to what is commonly referred to in North America as "mainstream" Freemasonry, allow me to assert that nothing could be further from the truth. It is true that I am a Liberal Freemason. Just as I understand that all religions hold kernels of universal truth, but not all the truth, so it is with Freemasonry.

My only hope is that we can increase communication and learn that working on ourselves and our institutions is in the greater good. I believe in Universal Freemasonry, regardless of the artificial and political boundaries we have created within our institutions. Believe it or not, we are all in this together.

I do not have delusions concerning the potential impact of my observations. I hope that in some small ways my efforts will open a few minds and instigate a little more communication. It's a big hope for a modest impact.  I hope this will serve as an olive branch for those who have misconstrued my intentions. For the rest, let it be a branch of acacia. Mainstream Freemasonry does not need to listen to my critiques. It would be wise however, to engage in more self-critique and introspection, not because I think it should, but because doing so will help it respond to change and strengthen.

After all of the above, I have come to my point, finally.

Freemasonry has, admittedly without intending to, entered a brave new world. It was inevitable. The internet was created and like it or not, it has changed the entire world. It is also changing Freemasonry. No, I do not envision a Freemasonry which exists only online. Nor do I think that the traditional structures of Freemasonry will morph into something radically different, although they are likely to diversify.

What I do know is that thanks to the internet, the cat is out of the bag. We have entered a world where the Masonic powers no longer control access to information. It was once sufficient to call another form of Freemasonry or those who were members of other forms of Freemasonry "apostate" or in Masonic parlance, "irregular" and ban communication with them. That worked for those masons who didn't think for themselves, and to an extent it appears to still work, although those days are numbered.

Today Freemasons encounter far more masons online in a week than only a few decades ago most would encounter in a lifetime. Without even meeting masons of other obediences, Freemasons with internet connections are going to be exposed to a wider range of information and ideas concerning Freemasonry than ever before. This combined with greater access to early documents and academic scrutiny, are pealing away layers of myths that were constructed over the past two centuries to present and maintain a monolithic view of Masonic history.

It may, given the resistance of Masonic institutions to change, take years for some of them to recognize that the world around them has changed. Some others may already realize that this will be, in fact already is, a game changer. How they respond will affect them more than it will others.

Adaptation is going to take more than clever public relations campaigns. Minds will absorb what they are exposed to, even masonic minds. The days of being able to control the flow of information has ended. It's a brave new world. The cat will not be put back in the bag.

Friday, August 1, 2014

A View Behind the Curtain: A Look at Our Stats

This may really not be of interest to anyone but me, but from time to time I enjoy looking at the stats that blogspot gives me. If I were less numerically challenged, they might actually reveal more to me than they do. I admit to an abiding suspicion that if the truth were to be told, statistics say whatever you want them to say.

That being said, I find the fact that on a given day more than 200 people have read what I've written here, and that I clock up what is to me at least an amazing figure of over 9,000 hits in a single month is surprising. That as of the moment I am writing this, my blog has been viewed an all time total of 130,322 times is humbling, and I hope at least a few of these have found something of value here.

I have no idea how any of this compares to other Masonic blogs, and I may be revealing that I actually have an incredibly small stake in the Masonic Blogosphere. Whatever, that's ok. It still is a great honor to me that so many have chosen to read my thoughts on various topics, mostly on Freemasonry.

What has been even more surprising to me is when I get readers from places such as Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Angola, Moldova, Russia, Sweden, Mauritius, as well as the more expected locations such as Spain, Brazil, France, Ireland, England, Germany, and perhaps not surprisingly, my largest share, which come from the United States.

As I said, I've no idea if any of this is of the remotest interest to all of you out there, but it has fascinated, and I admit, pleased me a little. Mostly, it has been amazing and humbling. So, this is just a note to allow me to draw back the curtain a bit from my end, and to thank all of you who have taken the time to visit my blog. 

In the time since November of 2011 when I first began this blog, I've only received negative comments from two people, which may mean no more than that most don't think it worth criticizing. However, I've also received a fair number of complements, sometimes from some unexpected sources. This pleases me, mostly because it speaks to the courtesy found among Freemasons, even when they come across a brother who doesn't mind speaking his mind more openly than is common in the fraternity.

So, thank you all, and I'll keep going as long as I find I have things to say that people appear interested in reading. I hope most of you have enjoyed the ride as much as I have, and that you'll keep coming back for more. I have learned an amazing amount in the process, which, along with the friendships I have cemented along the way, has made it well worth the effort.



Thursday, July 31, 2014

Book Review: The Brotherhood of Freemason Sisters by Lilith Mahmud

The Brotherhood of Freemason Sisters: Gender, Secrecy, and Fraternity in Italian Masonic Lodges
by Lilith Mahmud

Other books, notably those of Karen Kidd, have dealt with the subject of Women in Freemasonry, mostly but not exclusively in the English speaking world. This work examines material not as widely known in the Anglophone world. Lilith Mahmud, a talented scholar, takes us into the world of female Freemasons in Italian Freemasonry. It is a title that will inform and challenge the reader.

From the publisher's comments:

From its traces in cryptic images on the dollar bill to Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, Freemasonry has long been one of the most romanticized secret societies in the world. But a simple fact escapes most depictions of this elite brotherhood: There are women Freemasons, too. In this groundbreaking ethnography, Lilith Mahmud takes readers inside Masonic lodges in contemporary Italy, where she observes the many ritualistic and fraternal bonds forged among women initiates of this elite and esoteric society.

Offering a tantalizing look behind lodge doors, The Brotherhood of Freemason Sisters unveils a complex culture of discretion in which Freemasons simultaneously reveal some truths and hide others. Women—one of Freemasonry’s best-kept secrets—are often upper class and highly educated but paradoxically antifeminist, and their self-cultivation through the Masonic path is an effort to embrace the deeply gendered ideals of fraternity. Mahmud unravels this contradiction at the heart of Freemasonry: how it was at once responsible for many of the egalitarian concepts of the Enlightenment and yet has always been, and in Italy still remains, extremely exclusive.  The result is not only a thrilling look at an unfamiliar—and surprisingly influential—world, but a reevaluation altogether of the modern values and ideals that we now take for granted.

What's Religion and is Freemasonry one?

There has been a recent spike in discussion of religion and Freemasonry in the blogosophere. Having read what's been posted, it seemed to me a topic I wished to weigh in on. While all the posts were interesting to read, I found myself agreeing with most of them, in part. I also found points on which I disagreed with my colleagues. That's fine with me. As the old Quaker aphorism states, "As hard as it may be to believe, I may be wrong and thou may be right." Even if I believe that to be a long shot, it's still a possibility.

First of all, while part of the Masonic World currently has a "religious test" as part of its entry requirements, it wasn't always so. In fact, the very phrase used to justify this religious imposition speaks against there being a requirement. That of course, only goes to show that when Masons want to establish a restrictive rule, they don't let a little thing like the truth get in their way.

In fact, Anderson's famous statement states quite clearly that

"A Mason is obliged by his Tenure, to obey the Moral Law, and if he rightly understand the Art, he will never be a stupid Atheist nor an irreligious Libertine. But though in ancient times Masons were charged 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 whatsoever Denominations or Persuasions they may be distinguished."

Let's go back and engage in a simple lesson in English. It would seem that Freemasons, at least in the English speaking world have some trouble understanding that language. When Anderson says that "if he rightly understand the Art," that is a clear expression of opinion. It was never meant to be either proscriptive or prescriptive. He stated that Masons expect that all will maintain that upon which all religions agree, and further, to avoid a further expansion of that (perhaps he also practiced the oracular arts and knew someone was going to bullox it up) that this was no more than being good, true, and honest. End of story. What is more, he also said that they should leave their opinions to themselves, which in my reading at least, suggests not only that institutional Freemasonry should keep its nose out of the question entirely, but that Freemasons themselves should keep their mouths shut about the matter. That's not to say Freemasons are not free to share their interests and beliefs with likeminded individuals, but it would seem to me that it parallels the idea that one doesn't seek to proselytize, which where ever you find it is a particularly odious practice.

Now that seems totally reasonable to me. While we are at it, while I am no atheist, no epicurian, to use an older term, it seems to me that Anderson, while he may not have actually been thinking of this (though perhaps he was) left the door wide open to admitting atheists  into Freemasonry. After all, no matter how attached anyone may be to religion, and a belief in God (of some sort), can not atheists also be good, true, and honest people? Therefore, they meet Anderson's original criteria. So, it would seem that the Grand Orient of France, in removing a requirement of a belief in God, was more accurately reflecting the words of Anderson than those who require a declaration of faith. In any case, as it has played out it is more about gatekeeping and politics than it is about faith. I have often suspected that the entire subject became important to the UGLE only as a reason to object to the French. 

Having settled the question of whether or not Freemasonry was intended to have a religious requirement, we can turn to whether Freemasonry is a religion or not.

The biggest disagreement I had with most of the remarks in the blogosphere, is not so much their intentions, although their conclusions are, in my opinion, somewhat compromised by their initial understandings, but is rather in the definitions they apply to the term "religion." Most all of them espoused a definition that was conveniently close to, and doubtless crafted from, a Christian definition of religion; one which mirrors the institutions and understandings of a Christian worldview. Therein lies a significant problem.  You see, not all religions fit those forms, and there is not one universal definition that reflects accurately what a religion is, or what its focus may be.

For example, if Freemasonry applies the demand to believe in God, that causes a serious problem for Buddhists, Jains, and Taoists, whose religions do not stipulate a belief in deity as any Christian would understand it. Further, some religions are more morally relative than is Christianity. As a social scientist whose doctoral dissertation was focused on religion, I would argue that a more accurate definition of religion is "a set of attitudes, beliefs, and practices pertaining to supernatural power." That, and nothing more. Each religion has its own sets of specific beliefs, attitudes and practices. Indeed most of them, including especially Christianity, have multiple and often conflicting sets of beliefs, attitudes and practices pertaining to supernatural power.  For those who have particularly narrow views on religion, "supernatural power" can and does refer to 'god' among other things and people.

If "religion" is therefore "a set of attitudes, beliefs, and practices pertaining to supernatural power," then since Freemasonry does possess sets of beliefs, attitudes, and practices pertaining to supernatural power, whether we are referring to the spiritual perfection of mankind, or the Grand Architect of the Universe, Freemasonry is a religion, whether or not you subscribe to more esoteric practices that interest some Freemasons or not. If one views religion as possessing dogmas and metaphysical teachings, and priests, then Freemasonry may be viewed as either a religion or not, depending on which version of what Freemasonry supposedly is, you either dogmatically accept (like some religions) or believe fervently (also as religions do). I have never met a Freemason who doesn't have (usually strong) opinions on this subject. I often wonder whether all too many of us would be prepared to go into battle and kill for the Masonic principle of Universal Brotherhood if our Grand Lodge dictated that we do so.

My point in this post was not to offend as many different types of Freemasons as possible, although I suspect I may have succeeded in either doing that or confusing them. Rather, I wanted to point out that the entire question is, in my opinion at least, totally irrelevant. It is the wrong question, and that means whatever answers come from the question do nothing really to bring us more light.

Religion is a moving target, and whether some Freemasons, or Freemasonic jurisdictions and obediences would like to claim to possess the one true and correct form of Freemasonry (just like some religions claim about themselves), Freemasonry also has more than one form or version. In short, Freemasonry and religion in general cannot be pinned down to only one thing. After all, the human spirit is multifaceted and too little understood for one size to fit all.

Freemasonry does serve many of the functions of religion for its members, and also, it is very different from what most Christians would consider religion to be. The majority, if not virtually all Freemasons, would argue that it is not a religion. Whether it really matters is probably moot. Religion and Freemasonry is in the eye of the beholder. The bigger question is...

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

World Conference on Fraternalism, Freemasonry, and History: Paris 2015

World Conference on Fraternalism, Freemasonry, and History: 
Research in Ritual, Secrecy, and Civil Society 

The Bibliotheque Nationale- Paris, France 

May 29-30, 2015 

Convened by the journal Ritual, Secrecy, and Civil Society in cooperation with the Bibliotheque Nationale, the first World Conference on Fraternalism, Freemasonry, and History: Research in Ritual, Secrecy, and Civil Society, focuses on the study of ritual, secrecy, and civil society vis-à-vis the dynamics of Masonic scholarship around the world. The conference aims to explore how civil society, secrecy, and ritual have been important elements during different episodes of local and world histories, and indeed still are.

The conference will be held bi-annually in Paris, and hopes to open new doors while promoting multilingual and multicultural scholarship in areas such as, the relations between such Masonic-related subjects as the Companionnage, guilds, friendly societies, and Greek fraternities.

The call for papers is now open, and perspectives on and interpretations of all time periods and geographic zones are welcome. Paper and panel proposals should be submitted to Whitney Shepard, Registrar of the Conference, at Papers accepted for presentation will be published by Westphalia Press in three collections: Vital Masonic Scholarship in the 21st Century, New Research in Secret Societies, and European Scholarship in Secrecy and Ritualism. Additionally, some presentations will be made available for online streaming and video recorded through the American Public University System.

Conference Committee: Guillermo De Los Reyes (Conference Chair- University of Houston), Paul Rich (George Mason University), Daniel Guiterrez-Sandoval (Policy Studies Organization), Pierre Mollier (Editor, Ritual, Secrecy, and Civil Society), Maria Eugenia Vazquez-Semadeni (University of California, Los Angeles), Brent Morris (Scottish Rite Supreme Council), John Belton (Manchester Association of Masonic Research)

Keynote Address by John Cooper, Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of California, President of the North American Conference of Grand Masters- Into the Maelstrom: The Issue of Masonic Regularity, Past and Present Commentator: Alain Bauer
Chair: Guiillermo De Los Reyes

Conference Website

Call for Papers

Thanks to John Slifko, and the Policy Studies Organization.

Rough Ashlar No. 16

My view, which is admittedly not popular among much of the rank and file of Freemasonry in general today, is that the history of Freemasonry was highjacked by the Grand Lodges. If one was guilty of starting the trend, it was taken up on all sides.

It was largely political and about worldly control of the fraternity. Freemasonry was not originally supposed to be about institutional power. It was supposed to be about internal growth, however one chooses to frame that personal process. Now, even that is colored by dogmatic assertions and ideologies. It has been tamed and defanged in the exercise of political muscle and in the attempt to make the fraternity palatable for an increasingly less introspective audience which was necessary to increase membership beyond a limited scope. That's probably not a popular view, but so mote it be.