This FAQ is provided as a way to answer some of the question one often hears about Freemasonry. Its opinions are the authors and do not represent those of Freemasonry as a whole or any official opinion.
Are Freemasons for real?
It is a strange fact of our present historical moment that this question even occurs. Yet, since the fraternity has receded from the eye of the news media, and since it has been taken up by film makers and fiction writers, it is not surprising that people might think we are fictitous, or at best a thing of the past. The fictional and fantasy treatments of Freemasonry have always found it to be a good candidate for stories about secret plots, mysteries, and treasure hunts. That isn't surprising since those are all themes that occur in Masonic ritual drama. So, if you like that kind of story, think about joining the fraternity and you will see more such stories presented in a way designed to get you to think about virtue and loyalty and trust. But real Freemasons don't search for material treasures or for secrets to supernatural magical powers. They search for the inner gold of charity hidden in the breast of every good man.
Why are the rituals and ceremonies secret?
Several reasons. The first is historical tradition. During the time when Masonry was formed, it was dangerous to promote equality, freedom of thought, and liberty of conscience.
Second, following the practice of the operative stonemasons of the past, certain signs, grips, and passwords to the different degrees are used as guarantees that a stranger is truly a member of the fraternity. Today, however, those secret handshakes serve as symbols of our loyalty and our ability to keep faith with our brother Masons.
Third, a lesson that must be earned makes a deeper impression on one's mind and heart. There are many dramatic elements to the degree rituals that could be spoiled if the candidate knew before hand what was going to happen.
Finally, there is the matter of context. Masonic rituals are highly symbolic and allegorical and are intended to be presented in a particular order and manner. Each aspect of the ritual has a meaning. Freemasonry has been described as a system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols. All symbols can be misconstrued if taken out of context. The lessons of virtue are not secret but the Masonic manner of presenting lessons is dramatic and keeping matters of belief and spiritual practice private is a major theme of the degrees. That is because we hearken back to a history of violent intolerance of religious, political, and even scientific ideas. Well, there is still a lot of that going on in the world, isn't there? The secrecy in Masonry is itself symbolic of our respect for private belief.
But doesn't having secret handshakes and passwords make Masonry elitist and exclusive?
No, just a little eccentric by the standards of other private societies. Part of the fun of Masonry has long been its secret signs, handshakes, and all those lapel pins, medals, and rings. None of it is intended to be elitist. Quite the opposite, it is intended to allow men from every walk of life experience serving as a leader and being rewarded (even decorated) for that service. Not for military bravery, but for moral courage and action in self-improvement. New members are always welcomed joyfully. All you have to do is ask and you will find yourself among a diverse group of friends.
I thought that if you asked to join, you would be disqualified.
No, just the opposite. Freemasons are not permitted to solicit members. The choice has to come from the heart of the man who asks to join. But if you meet a Mason or visit a lodge for dinner to talk to the brothers there, you will find they are happy to answer all your questions and give you a petition to join. A few old-school Masons will wait until you have asked them about joining three times before they give you a petition. Some lodges require you to visit them for dinner or other social events for some months before they give you a petition, but this is to see if you fit the lodge. It is not intended to be elitist.
Can't anyone find Masonic secrets on the Internet or in books?
To some extent this is true but the true secrets of a Mason are not contained in the words of the ritual. A Mason who is true to his obligation will not reveal the modes of recognition (passwords and grips and such) but they are not truly "secret." In fact they were exposed to public view as early as the 18th century. There have been many books and tracts published over the centuries intending to "expose" Masonic secrets. The true secrets of a Mason are those personal, private, and lawful aspects of a man's life that he may choose to share with a brother, a brother who will keep those secrets faithfully. It is not secretiveness, it is discretion. The deepest "secret" of Freemasons is the inexpressible happiness that comes from living a good life.
Why are there so many weird symbols in Freemasonry?
The symbols have all been taken from stonemason's tools or the architect's craft and endowed with philosophical or metaphorical meanings. The square and compasses are the chief masonic symbols. The square symbolizes our devotion to acting "on the square" - that is, not being crooked or dishonest. The stonemason would square up the sides of a stone and call this "truing up the stone" so the square symbolizes truth. The compasses are used to draw circles, so metaphorically, Freemasonry presents the circle as a symbol of restraint. We learn to "circumscribe our passions within due bounds." That means that Masons try not to indulge destructive passions, to allow anger, lust, jealousy, envy, or other negative emotions to overpower their sense of what is right, proportionate, and just.
Many Masonic symbols come from geometry and contemplating their metaphorical meaning activates our imaginative mind as well as our reasoning mind to guide our behavior and cultivate self-awareness. Symbols are, after all, the language of the unconscious, the language of the heart.
Why aren't women allowed to be in the lodge? Is Masonry misogynistic?
Women are not allowed to join "regular" lodges of Freemasons. By contemporary standards it may not appear easy to justify this exclusion and most Masons would simply point to tradition as the reason. As a private group accepting no money from the public Masonic lodges are under no legal obligation to accept anyone and are entitled to chose with whom they wish to associate. When Freemasonry began in its modern form, associations of men were very common and the ways in which men and women could meet together socially were very tightly controlled. Even just one or two generations ago, it was considered improper for men and women to meet together in secret, so any organization founded on closed-door meetings, would have had a very hard time including women even if they had wanted to do so.
Today, such reasons seem sexist or at best old-fashioned, but at the same time because men and women can associate so freely today, men have realized the importance of having "men's groups." Such groups provide a structured space in which men can focus on the very particular moral challenges that face them as men, without feeling uncomfortable that women are present. Men act differently in mixed groups, so the lodge has been preserved as a place of male spiritual labor. A part of the masculine ideal of Masonry is respect for women equally with men -- respect for everyone equally, period.
The "men's lodge" really goes back to the roots of tribal human society and simply acknowledges difference between the sexes, not the superiority of one over the other. One feels the deep roots when meeting in a group of like-minded men from a broad social, economic and cultural background to practice a ritual derived from those performed hundreds of years ago.
Isn't Freemasonry just an Old Boys Network for giving favors to your friends?
We hope it isn't because extending favoritism to a brother by giving him a job or some kind of deal is not really considered to be good Masonic conduct. There is a fine line, though, between acting on the genuine affection we have for each other as lodge brothers, and unethical favoritism. One of the challenges of being a Mason is to know where that line is and to "act upon the square" in all our dealings. Overt networking for business or politics is forbidden in the lodge. But helping a brother in need is promoted as a virtue.
Why is there so much emphasis on charity in Freemasonry?
The craft guilds of stonemasons and other trained workers in the Middle Ages operated in part as mutual aid associations. Freemasonry, in embracing the idea of brotherly love among all men also devotes itself to the ideal of charity; that is, love which expresses itself purely in giving to others of our time, talents, and resources. A big part of being a Freemason is volunteer work. A Masonic lodge or grand lodge is a non-profit volunteer-run organization. Contrary to the conspiracy theorists and novelists, nobody gets rich because they are a Mason. If we did find the lost Templar treasure any finders fees would probably end up donated to the Shrine Children's Hospitals or the local food shelf.
In fact, the goal of each Mason is to be more charitable each day, and to aid those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Masonic charity organizations such as the Masonic Cancer Fund and the Shriner's Hospitals have become famous for their good works, but many Masonic charity organizations remain little known, doing their work with quiet modesty. Masonic charity is also expressed every day in much less spectacular ways that are equally important - a simple brotherly handshake and smile, helping a friend in need, and viewing the world not as an adversary but as a field of opportunity to help others.
Why do so many pictures of Masons show them wearing tuxedos and top hats?
Formal evening dress is one of the traditions of Masonry take over from previous generations. The Master of the lodge is the only one who wears a top hat (or some other kind of hat) as a symbol of his office. Everyone else in the lodge is uncovered, and the master removes his hat at times of prayer and great solemnity in the rituals of the lodge. Tuxedos or dark suits are also traditional, signifying the serious respect each brother gives to the lodge and its work. It may seem excessively fancy for a working man more used to blue jeans, but it isn't intended to be pretentious or classist; it is intended to emphasize the universality of "being a gentleman."
What's with the funny little aprons?
The white lambskin apron is the most important badge of a Mason. Receiving one's apron is a solemn event that marks a change in one's life. Only someone who has gone through the three degrees of initiation in a lodge can fully understand its meaning. The apron is a symbol taken from the operative stonemason's working garb, but for Freemasons it doesn't protect our clothes from soil; it symbolizes how Masonry protects our hearts and minds from the stains of vice. It's whiteness signifies virtue and innocence. The simple white apron is exchanged for a fancier apron when one is serving as a lodge officer, and grand lodge officers and past masters can have even more fancy aprons - all of which signifies the service they have performed for the Craft. The simple white lambskin apron - a rectangle with a triangular flap - is a symbol to live up to as we strive for innocence in our lives.
With all this talk about morality, virtue, and rituals, it sounds like Masonry is a religion.
Ancient Craft Masonry is not a religion. It differs from most religions by accepting men of all faiths equally. You don't have to "convert" to become a Mason. It is a spiritual and fraternal pursuit one adds to ones other religious practices. Yet Masonry does share many of the same qualities of attending a church or temple - prayers, for example, an altar, and frequent references to the Deity as the Supreme Architect of the Universe. But there are no dogmas or creeds, only symbols and landmarks which may be interpreted by each Mason for himself, according to his own conscience. The rituals and ceremonies of Masonry were carefully designed not to conflict with a brother's other duties and beliefs - to his god, his family, and his country. The essence of Masonry is not about belief in certain tenets, but about freedom of thought and conscience. Masonry is not a religion but it is religious - more so than, say, a bowling league or a country club.
I've heard some scary things about the initiation ceremonies. Are they like fraternity hazing rituals?
No, although some college fraternities have borrowed aspects of ritual from Masonry without understanding their true import. All initiations involve drama and the dramatic surprises are what can be so transformative. That's how initiations and rites of passage work. Our society has lost most of those rituals, and those that remain have been somewhat drained of their drama. It is these dramatic qualities and startling aspects that are designed to make you think about the deep questions of your life.
If I join, will I have to ride a goat?
No. This is a silly story someone made up, which has been perpetuated by cartoonists. It has become a joke among Masons but is completely untrue. It would be laughable if it were not for the fact that fear-mongering and lies are so deplorable and destructive.
Well, what about pentagrams? Don't Masons use Satanic pentagrams with the point down?
No. The pentagram as a star-shape is used as a minor symbol in Craft Masonry. It's significance as a geometric figure is alluded to in some Scottish Rite degrees. It is primarily used by the Order of the Eastern Star, in which the five-pointed star is the "Star of Bethlehem." The O.E.S. is a separate order created by Masons for their wives and female relatives. It has its own rituals, is more literally Christian and Biblical. and yet is non-denominational. If so-called Satanists use a pentagram, it is only a coincidence and is not used the same way. Pagans more generally use a pentagram to symbolize the five senses or the four elements plus the quintessence of alchemy. It is used by most groups as a positive symbol.
Is a 33° Mason more powerful in the organization than a 3rd degree Mason?
No. The higher numbered degrees are part of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, a separate kind of Masonry developed in the United States and in France. Each "degree" contains a different lesson. They do not refer to power or authority. In Craft Masonry, by contrast, there are only three degrees. In the United States many Craft Lodge brothers join the Scottish Rite or other Masonic groups to experience further degrees/lessons in virtue, but the three degrees of the craft lodge contain everything necessary to pursuing the ideals of Masonry. A Master Mason (3°) is just as respected as a "Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret" (Scottish Rite 32°), despite the latter title sounding much more high-falutin.