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Freemasonry and humanism compared

Updated: Feb 5



By Keith Hayward


Keith is a member of Farnham Humanists committee. He is a retired motor engineer and he currently runs a retail garden nursery in Bisley, Surrey. In this article, he provides a fascinating and in-depth comparison between Freemasonry and Humanism.





I was interested to read the article on Freemasonry in the December edition of Humanistically Speaking which gave a report of a talk by a practising Freemason to Dorset Humanists.


Secrecy

I did offer my own talk on Freemasonry to Dorset Humanists. That would have avoided much of the selective Public Relations exercise that you get from the Masons themselves. Masonic websites rarely mention their secrets. One of their secrets is that their secretiveness is a secret!  I no longer just passively accept their secrecy.  I have asked all male members of Farnham Humanist committee whether they are Freemasons, and all replied in the negative. One of them recollected bad memories of dominant and secretive Masons in his workplace, a common response when I mention Freemasonry. Maybe Humanistically Speaking could ask its own volunteers whether they are Freemasons. I like to think that such things should not be secret.  I also now ask all politicians that I meet, bearing in mind that there are three Lodges within Parliament. One local MP has already told me that he is NOT a Mason. I need to know where they stand before I vote.


Recently, I was at a funeral where I knew many of those attending. I have a friend who is a Master Mason (he says lapsed but I am not convinced about that). At the reception afterwards I asked him to look around and tell me how many Masons he could see. He could answer that question without breaking the strict rule regarding disclosing the names of fellow Masons.  He replied “about five”. I knew of two. It niggles me that I have friends who I drink with every week who choose to keep such things secret from me. 


“There are twenty-seven Freemason Lodges in the town of Bournemouth alone, and a further eighteen lodges in nearby smaller towns. That compares with just one Humanist Group!”

The December article was very thorough, but it missed some essential detail. One thing that I think is very relevant to Dorset Humanists in Bournemouth, and also to your Humanistically Speaking readership, is the sheer size of the organisation.  There are twenty-seven Freemason Lodges in the town of Bournemouth alone, and a further eighteen lodges in nearby smaller towns. That compares with just one Humanist Group!


One minor error was regarding mixed lodges. There are no mixed lodges in the UK. The ruling body, the United Grand Lodge of England, is strictly male only. There are two groups of lodges that are female only. They are outside the United Grand Lodge of England, but in amity with it.  Incidentally, there is a female Freemason Lodge in Bournemouth. Maybe Dorset Humanists could invite them to give a talk!


Your reporting of their charity collecting needs explanation. They do not collect charity from the general public. It is all collected (or levied or extracted) from their membership.  Also, 50 per cent of what they call charity is handed back to Freemasons who have fallen on hard times.


I am presently preparing a website on Freemasonry.  Below is a comparison of Freemasonry and Humanism which may be of interest to your readers.


Size

Freemasonry is an enormously large organisation. Bournemouth in Dorset has nineteen lodges plus a further eight lodges for “higher degrees” of masonry. The nearby towns of Brockenhurst, Christchurch, New Milton, Ringwood, have a further eighteen lodges (a Freemason lodge is around the same size as a typical humanist group). Bournemouth has one humanist group, and the nearby towns have none. It is tiny in comparison with Freemasonry.


Objectives

Humanists are outward looking, and their objective is to improve society. Freemasonry is inward looking; it exists for the benefit of its members. There is a feeling of brotherhood, of meeting, socialising and dining with fellow businessmen and men with a common interest.


Gender

Humanist groups welcome male and female members. Freemasonry in the UK has a strictly male-only membership. There are no female or mixed lodges within the governing body (i.e. the United Grand Lodge of England). There are two small quite separate organisations for female Freemasons. There is one such female Freemason lodge in Bournemouth. There are no mixed Freemason lodges in the UK.


Property

Freemasonry owns many large and elegant buildings. Each property contains at least one temple, and excellent dining facilities. There are six such grand buildings in and near Bournemouth. With very few exceptions, humanist groups own no property.


Membership Requirements

Freemasons must be over 21, male, must believe in the existence of a Supreme Being and must be of good character. The profession of the applicant and his financial soundness are also deemed to be important. An applicant for membership of a lodge can be “black balled” (i.e. be denied membership by a single existing member voting in secret). Humanists have no such membership requirements although humanist groups generally expect members to agree with the aims of humanism which is to promote humanist values etc.


Belief

The particular Supreme Being that the applicant believes in is unimportant. But he is expected to accept and learn the traditions associated with Solomon’s Temple (10th century BCE), the symbolic items associated with it, beliefs regarding the architect who designed it, and the masons who built it. Humanists are generally atheists and agnostics but they welcome members of any religion to attend their events.


Initiation

An applicant to become a Freemason must undergo an initiation procedure. This includes being blindfolded (to show that he is being led from darkness into light), having one breast uncovered (to show that he is not female), having one trouser leg rolled up (to show he is unshackled and so is a free man), being led into the temple by a rope around his neck (to show that he is to be governed by masonic rules). Humanists have no initiation procedure.


Membership levels

A Craft Lodge (which is the basic lodge), has three degrees of membership. These are Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason. Each of these levels has a different initiation

procedure. Master Masons qualify for membership of Lodges of higher degree. Humanists have no different levels of membership.


Regalia

Freemasons have regalia consisting of an ornamental apron, a sash or collar, a jewel, and cuffs. Each Lodge, and each grade of membership has its own regalia design. Humanists have no regalia.


Temples

Freemasons have temples in which they hold their formal meetings. Often these temples are on an upper floor to secure them from prying eyes. There are around six such temples in and around Bournemouth, probably more. These temples are built and furnished in the presumed style of the traditional Solomon’s Temple. No non-freemason is allowed to attend any formal event within a temple. A guard, known as a Tyler, traditionally holding a sword, guards the door and verifies the masonic credentials of every person entering. Humanists have no temples, no special artefacts, and no events limited to members only. A small number of secular and ethical societies (which are usually seen as part of the humanist movement) have their own buildings in the UK and the US.


Rules of membership

A Mason must not refer to, discuss, or allude to any of the secret Masonic modes of recognition. A Mason must not identify any other person as a Freemason unless he has his explicit consent or has already identified himself as such. A Mason must never discuss the business of a lodge that has been conducted in a temple, i.e. “behind a Tylered door”. No Mason shall appear clothed in any of the jewels, collars or badges of the craft, in any procession, meeting or assemblage at which persons other than Masons are present. Humanists have no such rules.


What do they do

Masons socialise with other Masons. They contribute to Masonically-supported charities. They meet at bi-monthly meetings. They don’t seem to have visiting speakers except Masons speaking on Masonic subjects such as some aspect of Masonic history or ritual. Meetings are usually followed by a meal, known as a “Festive Board”. It is basically an opportunity for Masons to socialise and dine with other Masons, and to meet Masons from other lodges. Humanists campaign for progressive change, for example on assisted dying, and they also organise lectures and events for their members which are open to the general public.


Charity Collection

Freemasons collect several million pounds for charity each year. This is all collected from their existing membership. None is collected from the general public. To collect charity contributions from the general public would require Freemasons to be seen in public, which they prefer to avoid. About half of what they raise as charity is distributed to Freemasons in need. Some humanist groups collect money for charity. For example, Dorset Humanists has raised thousands of pounds for charities such as a local foodbank which distributes food to all who qualify. Dorset Humanists also runs a small Hardship Scheme for the benefit of its own members.


Secrecy

Freemasonry is a secretive organisation. It keeps a low profile in society. Its regalia is never seen in public. Masons are reluctant to discuss Masonry with non-members. It has secret handshakes, signs and words by which Freemasons can recognise other Freemasons while remaining unidentified as Freemasons by non-Masons. The secrecy of Masonry is itself a secret as it is not mentioned in public utterances such as websites. There is the suspicion that the secrecy of Freemasons is used to help each other in business. There have been scandals in the past. The Guardian newspaper has published several articles criticising Freemasonry, including Integrity or influence? Inside the world of modern Freemasons by Ian Cobain in 2018. Quoting Martin Short, a campaigning journalist, the article asks: “It’s not just the handshakes and rituals of Freemasonry that are secret. As always, its biggest secret is its membership. Who are these 200,000 men? We have the names of their ceremonial leaders, as listed in the Masonic year book, but almost all the brothers are unknown. We have no idea how they relate to each other in society at large, or what deals they may be doing behind our backs to the detriment of everyone else.” Humanism is not a secretive organisation. Humanists have no secret methods of identifying other humanists.


Declining Membership

Freemasons are struggling to retain membership. To counteract this they have reduced their membership requirements and they are becoming a more open organisation. They now use their grand buildings for hosting weddings, conferences, business events etc. To conceal the fact that they are masonic buildings, they sometimes give the same building two addresses, one masonic, the other non-masonic; sometimes the same building will have two website addresses; sometimes masonic insignia will be removed from a building where this is practical. Humanist groups are also struggling to retain members although Humanists UK has seen growth in its membership and supporter base to around 130,000 people.

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