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Is Freemasonry compatible with Humanism?

Report by David Warden, Chair of Dorset Humanists. David is pictured here with guest speaker and Freemason Malcolm Williamson.

Dorset Humanists hosted an event on Freemasonry at their November meeting. Our guest speaker was Malcolm Williamson, a retired solicitor and a Past Master of Royal Alfred Lodge No. 777 – one of the oldest Freemasons Lodges in Guildford. Malcolm provided a short, biographical account of his involvement with Freemasonry over fifty years, which was followed by a lively Q&A session. He claimed to be a humanist as well as a Freemason. One of the sticking points, for our humanist audience, is Freemasonry's insistence that members have to confess belief in a deity. Malcolm explained that the Freemasons do not insist on a specific definition of what this belief consists in. The way he explained it, it sounded similar to the eighteenth century concept of deism (God as a remote architect) or possibly Spinoza's pantheism: God as a synonym for the totality of the universe. Perhaps its main purpose is to symbolise belief in some kind of universal moral order in which case a humanist might, if pushed, be able to profess "belief in God" understood as symbolising one's personal commitment to living a good life rather than a literal belief. Malcolm rejected the idea that Freemasonry is a religion, preferring to describe it as a charitable organisation, but clearly it does have some non-negotiable religious and ritualistic elements. It is also segregated by sex – a feature which does not endear it to humanists – although there do appear to be some mixed-sex Lodges. Malcolm pushed back against questions which implied that Freemasonry is self-serving and nepotistic, providing examples of how contacts can have socially benign effects. He also said that they collect a lot of money for charity, although there was a lack of detail about how this money is distributed. In the bar afterwards, we learnt about the secret handshake but I cannot possibly divulge this information!

Over forty people attended this evening event

I was surprised to learn that Freemasons were caught up in the Nazi Holocaust: possibly as many as 200,000 Freemasons were murdered. I was also surprised to learn about the ethical basis of Freemasonry, which has marked similarities to Humanism. Malcolm brought some artefacts for us to look at, including a multi-volume history of Freemasonry and a masonic "apron" worn for ceremonial purposes, as shown in the images below.

What follows is a short historical and explanatory overview of Freemasonry. This is not a transcript of Malcolm's talk.

Origins and Early Development

The origins of Freemasonry are a subject of debate and speculation. While the exact birthplace and date of its founding remain elusive, historians generally agree that Freemasonry emerged from the late 13th century. One popular theory traces the roots of Freemasonry to the guilds of stonemasons who constructed the magnificent cathedrals and castles of medieval Europe. These skilled artisans formed tight-knit communities, passing down their trade secrets and knowledge from generation to generation. They developed unique signs and symbols to communicate and to distinguish between levels of skill and knowledge. As the demand for cathedral builders waned, these guilds began accepting non-operative members, those not directly involved in masonry work. These speculative or "accepted" masons contributed to the transformation of guilds into a philosophical and fraternal organization, and a shift in focus from physical building to the building of character, moral values, and ethics.

The Formation of Grand Lodges

The year 1717 is a significant milestone in the history of Freemasonry. On June 24, 1717, four London lodges met at the Goose and Gridiron Alehouse and formed the first Grand Lodge, the Grand Lodge of England. This event marked the beginning of organized Freemasonry and led to the establishment of a formal constitution for governing the lodges. The Grand Lodge of Ireland followed in 1725, and the Grand Lodge of Scotland in 1736. These early Grand Lodges helped spread Freemasonry across Europe and to the American colonies.

Freemasonry in the American Colonies

Freemasonry played a notable role in the American colonies. Many influential figures of the American Revolution, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Paul Revere, were Freemasons. Lodges served as meeting places where men of different backgrounds could discuss ideas of liberty, democracy, and equality.

The Age of Enlightenment and Freemasonry

The Age of Enlightenment, a period marked by a surge in intellectual and philosophical developments, had a significant impact on Freemasonry. The principles of the Enlightenment, such as reason, liberty, and the scientific method, resonated with the values of Freemasonry. Lodges became hubs for the exchange of enlightened ideas, furthering the spread of these principles.

The ethical code of Freemasonry

The ethical principles and values associated with Freemasonry include brotherly love, helping people in need (both within the Masonic community and in society at large), holding yourself to a high standard of integrity and virtue, equality in terms of social, economic, and racial differences, and tolerance of religious diversity. Freemasonry is often seen as a fraternal organisation which promotes the moral and ethical development of its members through symbolic teachings and rituals. The specific details of Masonic ethics can differ, however, from one jurisdiction to another.


Secrecy has been a part of Freemasonry since its early history. The use of symbols, signs, and rituals with hidden meanings has been a tradition within the fraternity for centuries. Many of the symbols and rituals used in Freemasonry are intended to convey moral and philosophical teachings. By keeping these symbols and rituals private, Freemasons believe they maintain their effectiveness as tools for personal development and moral instruction. Secrecy can create a sense of exclusivity and belonging among members. The private nature of Masonic ceremonies and symbols can foster a sense of unity and camaraderie among Freemasons. By maintaining secrecy, members demonstrate their commitment to the fraternity and its principles. In the past, secrecy may have been used to protect members from persecution or discrimination, particularly during periods in history when Freemasonry was viewed with suspicion by some governments or religious authorities.


The initiation ceremony for a Freemason, known as the "Entered Apprentice Degree," is a ritualistic and symbolic event that marks the beginning of a candidate's journey into Freemasonry. The specifics of the initiation ceremony can vary somewhat between different Masonic jurisdictions and lodges, but this is what typically takes place:

  1. Before the initiation ceremony begins, the candidate is prepared by a member of the lodge. This preparation may involve the candidate being blindfolded, having their left breast exposed, and having a rope or cable-tow placed around their neck, among other symbolic gestures. The rope or cable-tow is a symbol of being bound or restrained, signifying their willingness to be guided by the principles and teachings of Freemasonry.

  2. The candidate is led by a guide or conductor into the lodge room, which is often dimly lit and filled with Masonic symbols and regalia. The blindfold represents the candidate's state of spiritual darkness and ignorance.

  3. During the ceremony, the candidate goes through a symbolic journey, representing their personal journey toward enlightenment and moral improvement. This journey may involve circumambulating (walking around) the lodge room.

  4. The candidate takes a solemn oath, called an obligation, pledging secrecy about the specific details of the Masonic rituals. This oath also includes promises to uphold the moral and ethical principles of Freemasonry and to support fellow Masons in times of need.

  5. Throughout the ceremony, the candidate is presented with various symbolic tools and objects, such as a square and compass, which are emblematic of moral and ethical principles. These tools are used to teach important lessons about conduct and character.

  6. A senior Mason often delivers a lecture or charge to the newly initiated Mason, explaining the symbolism and moral teachings of the initiation.

  7. After the initiation, the candidate is welcomed as a brother into the fraternity, and other members of the lodge offer their fraternal greetings and support.

  8. The blindfold and cable-tow are removed, symbolizing the candidate's transition from darkness to light and from ignorance to enlightenment.

The primary purpose of Masonic initiation ceremonies is to impart moral and ethical lessons and principles to the candidate, emphasizing the importance of self-improvement and the development of a virtuous character. The overarching themes of morality, brotherhood, and personal growth remain consistent. Freemasonry places a strong emphasis on symbolism and allegory to convey its teachings.

Controversies and Conspiracies

Throughout its history, Freemasonry has been the subject of controversy and conspiracy theories. The secretive nature of its ceremonies and the perceived influence of its members in political and economic spheres have fuelled suspicion and speculation. The anti-Masonic movement in the 19th century, particularly in the United States, led to public distrust and the decline of Freemasonry's popularity.

Nazi persecution

Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party viewed Freemasonry as a potential threat, due to its secretive nature and its principles of liberty and equality, which were antithetical to Nazi ideology. The Nazis associated Freemasonry with the Jewish community and the so-called "Jewish conspiracy," further fuelling their hostility towards the organisation. The exact number of Freemasons who were murdered by the Nazis is difficult to determine. The secretive nature of the organisation, combined with the chaos and destruction of World War II, makes it challenging to have precise figures. Estimates suggest that between 80,000 and 200,000 Freemasons were killed during the Holocaust. Freemasons were forced to wear a distinctive red triangle in concentration camps, marking them as political prisoners. The persecution of Freemasons was part of the broader wave of terror and genocide orchestrated by the Nazi regime, which targeted various groups, including Jews, Romani people, political dissidents, gay men, and others deemed "undesirable" by the Nazis.

Freemasonry in the Modern Era

Today, Freemasonry continues to be a global fraternity with millions of members. Its lodges are spread across the world, each operating independently but adhering to the basic principles of brotherhood, morality, and mutual support. While the organisation has evolved, its core values and traditions remain intact.

Roosters regalia - a Cambridge parody of Freemasonry
Jesus College Coat of Arms with roosters

The Roosters - a parody of the Freemasons

The Roosters, founded as a debating society in 1907 at Jesus College, Cambridge, evolved from the 1920s into an elaborate parody of Freemasonry. The objects of the society were to study, practise, maintain, and extend the art, craft, science and mystery of Roosting. The name "Roosters" was a play on the surname of the founder of the college, The Right Rev John Alcock who died in 1500. The first High Steward of the Roost was novelist and literary critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. An associated dining club, The Most Loquacious Order (pronounced Odour 'in deference to the fish') of the Red Herring was founded in 1923, named after Thomas Herring, eighty-fourth Archbishop of Canterbury and sometime member of Jesus College. The Regulations and Ordinances of the Roosters were set down in various elegantly printed editions of the Codex Gallorum, bound in red covers. This included ordinances for the initiation of new members called "Eggs" who could graduate to become "Chickens" and then take their "Perches". The Order of the Red Herring had a similar set of arcane rules and rights, including the right of the Order to constitute the Upper Perch of the Roosters. To this effect, the Grand Marshall of The Most Loquacious Order of the Red Herring, also addressed as "Old Fish", was simultaneously elevated to The Most Gallinaceous President of the Roosters, also addressed as "Old Cock". Other officers included the Excellent Vice-President, the Incorruptible Treasurer, the Assiduous Secretary, the Indefatigable Usher, the Pious Almoner and Philanthropist, and the Devil's Advocate and Leader of the Lower Perch. Activities continued to include debates on rather absurdist motions, but Uphill Bowls and bicycle races through various college courts, and visits to a sequence of college towers also featured. There were two major dinners which punctuated the year: the President's Offishal Birthday, and the Breakfast-at-Lunchtime which took place on Hangover Sunday after the May Week boat races were over. Sadly, the societies have since faded into history and the whereabouts of the robes and other effects are uncertain.


The ethical principles of Freemasonry seem to be mostly in alignment with humanist ethics, and it appears to actively promote the moral and ethical development of it members. For example, within Masonic lodges, members often participate in educational activities and discussions focused on moral and ethical topics. Lectures and presentations may cover a wide range of subjects related to personal development and virtuous living. If this is the case, it may be doing more than organised humanism to promote the moral and ethical development of its members. Humanism rarely does this in any systematic way, beyond the repetition of catchy slogans such as "Good without God" and "Think for Yourself, Act for Everyone". But Freemasonry's insistence on belief in a deity, despite its theological permissiveness, is obviously a stumbling block for the vast majority of humanists. Its fraternal nature, based on sex-segregation, might still have wide appeal but it appears antiquated and sexist. Secrecy and rituals are ancient and perhaps harmless devices for creating a sense of belonging to a group or a cult. But it's understandable that these aspects of Freemasonry have generated suspicion. Humanism, by way of contrast, is based on openness and rationality – not mysteries and rituals.

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10 дек. 2023 г.


The traditional initiation ceremony includes a blood oath to retain masonic secrets on pain of having their hearts ripped out, which is why the left breast is exposed during the ceremony.

The main problem with masonry is the inter-connection between criminals, police officers and court officials (including lawyers and judges) within lodges.

Masonry is like a golf club membership but with the added masonic imprint on top.

Compatible with humanism? Absolutely not!


01 дек. 2023 г.

Absolutely not ! To suggest a crooked secret club for old men is compatible with Humanism is the most bonkers idea I've heard all year. Having met many Freemasons and visited a large city lodge I can tell you they are not Humanists.

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