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The Intersection of Free-Masonry, Humanism, and Secularism - Part I

What do Modern Free-Masonry, Humanism, and Secularism have in common?  The answer to this question lies in the analysis of the key principles of these three philosophies, and as we shall see, there is more in common between them than what one might suspect. This essay will demonstrate that Modern Free-Masonry, as exemplified by the Grand Orient of the United States, the Grand Orient of France, and the original Modern Free-Masons of 18th century Europe, are fundamentally humanist and secular in nature, differentiated from Humanism and Secularism by their focus on brotherhood and ritual.
Humanism
Let's start with Humanism. According to the American Humanist Association:
"Humanism is a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion. It affirms the dignity of each human being and supports individual liberty consonant with social and planetary responsibility. Humanism advocates participatory democracy, the open society, human rights, and social justice. Free of supernaturalism, it recognizes human beings as part of nature and holds that all values- be they religious, ethical, social, or political – have their source in human nature, experience, and culture. Humanism thus derives the goals of life from human need and interest rather than from theological and ideological abstractions, and asserts that humanity must take responsibility for its own destiny" (1).
 
We can summarize this worldview with the following values and principles:
 
  • Progressive philosophy of life
  • Without theism and free of supernaturalism
  • Ethics and the greater good of humanity
  • Rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion
  • Human dignity
  • Individual liberty
  • Democracy, open society, human rights, and social justice
  • Values rooted in human nature, experience, and culture
 
Humanism in light of the above is clearly framed as a natural philosophy, where ethics and the pursuit of knowledge are grounded in empiricism, reason, and human experience. However, this is not just an epistemology or theory of how we seek and validate knowledge, but also a moral philosophy centered on egalitarian values, which are rooted in the age of enlightenment and deeply immersed in the notion of individual freedom and the intrinsic value of human beings.
According to the Council for Secular Humanism, secular humanism (closely related to humanism) is based on the following elements and principles (2):
 
  • A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith.
  • Commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence, and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith and mysticism, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.
  • A primary concern with fulfillment, growth, and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.
  • A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.
  • A concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.
  • A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.
  • A conviction that with reason, an open marketplace of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.
 
Similar to the definition of Humanism, these principles emphasize critical reasoning and science, ethical conduct, tolerance, the growth of humanity, and individual responsibility.  This again reinforces the natural philosophy worldview, where our beliefs and values are fundamentally "human" or rooted in human experience and reason rather than supernatural or religious foundations.
Secularism
Now we turn to a more general philosophy that is strongly affiliated with Humanism, and that is Secularism. The Secular Coalition for America, in its "Position Statement and Statement on Freedom of Conscience" and "Religious Tolerance" (3), affirms the following principles and values:
 
  • Reason and science as the most reliable methods for understanding the universe and improving the human condition
  • The pursuit of knowledge, meaning, and responsible ethical codes without reference to supernatural forces
  • Freedom of conscience, including religious freedom, is a fundamental American value
  • Secular government
  • Religious tolerance to all religions and to those without religious beliefs
 
The Council for Secular Humanism also provides background on the term "secularism":
"Coined in 1841 by English freethinker George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906), who defined it as 'the extension of freethought in ethics.' Plainly, Holyoake intended something very like the synthesis of unbelief and rational ethics seen today in secular humanism (2).
The notion of the synthesis of unbelief and rational ethics is interesting in that it poses a potential contradiction of ideas. On the one hand, we have skepticism, which could serve as a basis for rejecting all speculative worldviews; and on the other hand, we have the affirmation of ethical behavior based on human reason, which ultimately though not self-evidently rests on speculation (otherwise we are forced to admit that the validity of human reason is itself based on human reason, which is circular).  However, practically speaking, there is no contradiction in questioning speculative, metaphysical, and supernatural worldviews, while at the same time promoting humanist ethics. We base this latter point not from an epistemological standpoint suggesting objective truths, but from the practical standpoint that we share the desire to flourish and promote the well being of human beings. The rational facet of ethics then becomes a system of practical reasoning, whereby we use our common desires as a basis for inferring moral principles. 
Finally, if we review the entry for Secularism in Wikipedia (4), which draws from many sources, we glean the following:
 
  • Governmental practices or institutions should exist separately from religion and/or religious beliefs.
  • Critical of religious orthodoxy and asserts that religion impedes human progress because of its focus on superstition and dogma rather than on reason and the scientific method.
  • Secularism draws its intellectual roots from Greek and Roman philosophers such as Marcus Aurelius and Epicurus, Enlightenment thinkers like Denis Diderot, Voltaire, John Locke, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine.
 
What we can see from the above sources is that Secularism bears a strong resemblance to Humanism, with a strong emphasis on separation of church and state, reason and science, and freedom of conscience. Again we find a worldview strongly based on natural philosophy, where we approach life's most critical philosophical questions from the standpoint of "human" reason and experience, and where supernaturalism, religious dogma, and superstition are kept separate from the establishment of knowledge and morality.
 
In Part II of this article, we will examine the key principles and values of Modern Free-Masonry and

demonstrate that Modern Free-Masonry, as exemplified by the Grand Orient of the United States, the Grand Orient of France, and the original Modern Free-Masons of 18th century Europe, are fundamentally humanist and secular in nature. We will also discuss treatment of the Bible and belief in god(s) in light of the history of Modern Free-Masonry.

 

References

(1) American Humanist Association. Website: http://www.americanhumanist.org
(2) Council for Secular Humanism. Website: http://www.secularhumanism.org/
(3) Secular Coalition for America. Website: http://www.secular.org/
(4) Wikipedia. Website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secularism

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