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.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

In Defense of African Religious Traditions: Brazil, Haiti, & USA

Religious intolerance is something that we all have an awareness of these days. Between the Islamic fanatics in the Mid-East and Africa, to our own homegrown Evangelical Fanatics in Texas (and too often in political office), we've seen the worst that can result from an excess of narrow-minded devotion to an over-testosterone driven deity.

We notice plenty of outcry against religious intolerance, at least when its directed at a mainstream religion, and in the US, that means only one thing - Protestant Christianity.

Mind you, I have nothing really against Protestant Christianity, well, almost nothing. I hate religious proselytization of any kind, regardless of the questionable claim that your god wants you to spread the "good" word, it's just plain tacky. Like the recent FB meme put it, which compared religion to a specific part of the male anatomy, "it's fine if you have one, just don't pull it out and wave it in my face."

What absolutely nobody seems to object to, is disrespecting religions of African origin. It seems that after they floated the idea that America had become post-racial, it started taking on water almost immediately, and sunk while nobody was looking. Unfortunately, the USA, famous for being a nation of immigrants (except for latinos, please) isn't the only place where African derived faiths face a great deal of hostility.

A while back I posted about some hopeful steps forward that took place in Brazil, when Umbanda was declared an intangible cultural heritage by the City of São Paulo. Unfortunately, there tends to be more bad news than good, and lest any reader feel satisfied that the trouble is in Brazil, although I suspect some may secretly and not so secretly opine that oppression of African faiths is a good thing, there's plenty of it going on in the US, as well.

In spite of the hand of friendship the new Pope is extending, a newly appointed Cardinal in Haiti has recycled the old discourse that Vodou, the national religion of Haiti which is of African origin, is a bad thing for Haitians. It doesn't matter that he's black and Haitian, the mindset is of the worst sort, and unbecoming a supposed "man of god." At this stage of our evolution we should be able to recognize that all faiths lead to deity, because all deities are simply human attempts to apprehend the divine. Nobody's faith gets it better than anyone else's.

In Brazil, even as São Paulo declared Umbanda part of the city's cultural heritage, institutionalized bias elsewhere allowed that cultural heritage to take second fiddle to a sports complex.

And while construction workers destroyed historical sites to build a sports club, Evangelical Christians are egged on often by their pastors and on TV, to attack Umbanda and Candomblé temples. In more than one case, they have even murdered the priests. Of course, the church leadership always back peddles when that happens, and tries to claim that the individual was mentally ill.

Even in the US, African religions are constantly subjected to discrimination. For decades, police departments have systematically attempted to criminalize the practice of African derived faiths, and the fact that most practitioners are members of minorities, are poor, and in many cases speak English as a second language, makes them easy victims of institutionalized racism. The former New York City Mayor, Rudy Guliani, that bastion of privilege and obnoxiousness, even harassed Afro-Cuban drummers. 

As these religions continue to grow, society has to learn to behave with tolerance toward other religions. It's a well documented truth that if you are not tolerant toward others, you can expect none to be shown to yourself. 

One may wonder why such intolerance exists. Apart from the obvious answer that while Jesus didn't teach intolerance, most Christian institutions have over the last two millennia. It's easy to point to some of the practices within African faiths which make modern first world people uncomfortable. In the US, most people don't witness the preparation of the animal protein they consume, and they want it that way. Also, Christianity's God generally has become (although for some of its history this was not the case) a Dios Otioso - a distant god. Christianity has gradually intellectualized deity into an invisible one, whose presence exists only in metaphor. As Western society has generally moved away from direct contact with spiritual forces, it has generally become afraid of such experience, and as a result has tried, under the mantle of "science" (which despite being a methodology of research has become a catch word for materialism that has never lived up to its claims of objectivity) has attempted to variously criminalize, ridicule, and turn religious imminence into psychosis. Thomas Szasz summed up Western society's hostility to imminent religion succinctly when he said that "If you talk to God, you are praying; If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia. If the dead talk to you, you are a spiritualist; If you talk to the dead, you are a schizophrenic."

Since African derived faiths deal with the direct interaction of the living with the realm of spirit, most commonly through spirit possession, modern Western materialist society is variously fascinated, appalled, and what is probably at the heart of Western society's hostility toward such faiths, envious.

In this day and age, we need to be working to insist on more tolerance for all, and that most certainly includes African derived faiths. They are after all, the inheritors of humanity's earliest engagement with spirituality.

Below you will find links to a number of articles dealing with these issues.

Ebony: Haiti doesn't have a Vodou problem, it has a Christianity problem!

Marchers in São Paulo protest Religious Descrimination

Evangelicals spread intolerance toward African Religions

Attacks on Afro-Brazilian Religious Practitioners, Temples!

The Temple that started Umbanda razed despite attempts to halt its demolition.

Eminent Domain used in Brazil to shut down Afro-Brazilian Temples, but not Christian Churches!

Candomblé Priestess and family members murdered by Evangelical

Fighting back against institutionalized racist public policy in USA

How Mayor Guliani targeted Afro-Cuban drummers

Friday, July 18, 2014

Masonic Book Fair

12th Annual Masonic Book Fair: Paris
15th and 16th of November 2014
Twelfth Masonic Book Fair

Organized by The Masonic Institute of France

will take place on 15 and 16 November 2014

Organized with the participation of Various Obediences.

9 rue Pinel

75013 Paris

Admission is free. Details of the program schedule will be available in October.

Regnas Redux: Still the Most Amazing Masonic Rings

A while back I did a post about The Regnas Collection, a fabulous business which produces truly unique Masonic (and other) jewelry. While I have no vested interest in the company, and as yet do not own any of their magnificent creations, I am still extremely enthusiastic about them. Their work is superb. They use precious and semi-precious stones, and one of the most remarkable aspects about them, what in fact sets them apart from virtually all other producers of Masonic jewelry, is that they are set up to enable individuals to order custom designed pieces.

The good gentlemen at Regnas have not slowed down one iota. They continue to do wonderful work and this post is nothing more nor nothing less than a blatantly self-indulging look at their site another time. I hope you enjoy their work as much as I do.

Also, I sincerely hope that the next time I write about them, I will showcase the piece or pieces I have had them design for me, as sooner or later I will fold my cards and place an order. You should do the same. Such good work deserves support.

So, without delay, check out their wares. I have a link for their website as well as their facebook page. Both are worth the time, even if you only windowshop. Enjoy a real feast for the eyes. Also bear in mind that for what they do, they are really quite reasonably priced. Be certain to check out their automated custom ring page, which can walk you through the entire process of creating your own customized ring. It really is remarkable.

The Regnas Collection Web Site

Regnas Collection on Facebook