Saturday, October 11, 2008

Universal Freemasonry

Lately, I have been seriously considering making a radical change in my own Masonic journey, and thinking about the nature and universality of our Craft. In doing so, I have been considering just how long my cable-tow might be, and have reached some surprising conclusions.
For much of my Masonic career, I have accepted without question the proposition that certain segments of the human race, most notably women and atheists, could not be made Masons. This principle is so fundamental to "mainstream" Freemasonry, that it is even considered one of the Ancient Landmarks. But what is it about a woman or an atheist that precludes them from being a Mason? As I thought about this question, I came to the conclusion that there is no rational reason why this should be. In fact, the more I pondered the question, the more I became convinced that women and atheists can and should be allowed to become Masons.
One of the stated purposes of our Craft is to "cause true friendship to exist among those who might have otherwise remained at a perpetual distance". What better application of this lofty ideal than to bring together in Brotherhood believers and atheists, men and women, all on an equal footing? How good and how pleasant it is for Brethren to dwell together in unity, despite what might have otherwise been insurmountable differences!
Many will argue that an atheist can have no real morality because they do not believe in a Supreme Being, and thus cannot be trusted to keep an oath. This is simply absurd. While I agree that it may be more difficult to enforce a rigid morality upon oneself without the idea of some sort of eternal consequences, it is certainly not impossible. In fact, in my opinion, the atheist who subscribes to a moral code consistent with Masonic principles is to be commended, possibly even over one who has their moral code imposed by an external force, such as an organized religion. To maintain such a moral code is difficult in today's world, and the atheist who does must certainly exert a great deal more effort to do it than the typical religious adherent.
What about women? In ancient times, women were not allowed to be Masons due to societal constraints. There just weren't very many female stonemasons in the operative guilds. As the Fraternity evolved, the social climate of the times also prevented women from becoming speculative Masons. This was codified, and has continued to the present day. However, just because something has "always been done that way" does not make it correct. Society has evolved, and many of the barriers that have been placed in front of women have been overcome. There is no compelling reason why our Craft should not evolve as well, and recognize that women can be Masons. To deny half of the world's population the opportunity to benefit from the lessons of Freemasonry based on outdated societal constraints is, in my opinion, a violation of the very principles we hold dear.
I accept that this is a controversial view, far outside the "mainstream", and that many Brethren will vehemently disagree. I only ask that each Mason honestly examine his own heart and conscience for the answer to this issue. By accepting women and atheists as Masons, we can only enrich our own Masonic journey. Furthermore, in an increasingly materialistic and selfish world, Masonic values are needed now more than they have ever been. How can having more Masons propagating these values be a bad thing?
So mote it be!

As a postscript to the above, let me add that there are some orders of our Craft in which an atheist might not feel comfortable. Two obvious examples of this are some of the mainstream York Rite orders as well as the less common (at least in the United States) Rectified Scottish Rite. To remove religious references from these orders would destroy their unique character, and I do not advocate this. I suppose that even while allowing atheists into our Craft generally, there would be certain Rites into which they simply could not be admitted. I concede that this is somewhat of a "have your cake and eat it too" approach, but then again, I also do not advocate the wholesale integration of women and atheists into our Craft. I believe that Freemasonry can be a "big tent" with room for all types of Masonic obediences, whether they be single sex, integrated, liberal, conservative, or any mix thereof. There need be no friction between the different obediences if Masons would adopt a "live and let live" attitude. Recognition should be left up to individual Masons and Lodges and not usurped by any "Grand" body.