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


In Part I of this article, we examained the key principles and values of Humanism and Secularism. We will now address a few of the misconceptions regarding Humanism, Secularism, and Atheism, compare Humanism and Secularism with Modern Freemasonry, and finally discuss the place of the Bible and belief in god(s) in light of the principles and values of Modern Freemasonry.

Misconceptions concerning Humanism, Secularism, and Atheism
Before moving on to the principles and values of Modern Free-Masonry, we must address two common misunderstandings of Secularism and Humanism, which are that all humanists and secularists are atheists, and both of these philosophies are inherently "anti-religious" in the sense that they aim to abolish religion or prevent people from expressing their religious beliefs.  This latter assumption commits the fallacy of assuming that because a worldview does not rely on religious or supernatural principles that it must somehow aim to suppress religion or supernaturalism, or more harshly wish to prevent others from expressing their religious and supernatural viewpoints. However, not only is this assumption a generalization, but it confuses the aims and scope of humanism and secularism. 
For one, we can see, based on how Humanism and Secularism are defined, that the two stress religious tolerance, individual liberty, or freedom of conscience, which ultimately contract the possibility of being "anti-religion.", "anti-God", or the aim of abolishing all religion. In order to uphold individual freedoms and freedom of conscience, one must also tolerate expression of all worldviews, religious or not. Both Humanism and Secularism clearly promote the use of reason, rationality, and scientific thinking to answer some of the most fundamental questions regarding ourselves and the universe, and both imply an approach that is "without" faith, superstition, and mysticism. However, choosing one method or approach over another does not at all imply, by any degree of common sense or logic that all other methods or approaches ought to be abolished or not freely expressed. Hence, Humanism and Secularism are not at all anti-religious in the sense just explained; rather they simply do not rely on religion or the supernatural to define their worldview or approaches.
The confusion in light of the aims of humanism and secularism are likely based on the fact that these two philosophies tend to promote detaching religious dogma and supernaturalism from morality, scientific enquiry, and government institutions. The reasons for this “detachment” have nothing to do with a general desire to abolish religious dogma or to prevent others from expressing it, but are based on the consensus among humanists and secularists that religious dogma and supernaturalism hinder out ability to progress and flourish as a modern society. In the context of separation of church and state, this false accusation that humanists and secularists are somehow “anti-religious” illuminates the irony of adherents of religious dogma claiming that they are victims of discrimination because they are not allowed to express their dogma in a government institution. They fail to conceptualize the implications of their actions in the larger context of human rights and freedoms. Embracing human rights fundamentally means that there will be times when we have to restrict or circumscribe some individual freedoms to prevent restricting the rights of others. This requires the ability to prioritize the outcomes and impacts of our actions and consider the overall balance of human rights.
The claim that all humanists and secularists are atheists is also entirely flawed and ungrounded.   Conversely, theism is simply the belief in "God" or gods, which in itself does not contradict using a secular approach to making ethical decisions and seeking knowledge. Certainly, if we couple theism with religious dogma that professes faith-based knowledge and proscribes ethical behavior that contradicts the principle of separation of church and state and other humanist values, then there are clearly conflicts with Humanism and Secularism. But this is not an issue of theism and atheism, but with religious dogma and confusing theism with religion. Theism, by and in itself, is not directly inconsistent with Humanism and Secularism, for a simple belief in a deity does not proscribe an entire anti-secular worldview.
The phrase "without theism" in the context of the principles of Humanism and Secularism pertains more to the methods that these worldviews use to ground ethics and the quest for knowledge, as opposed to what an individual must believe in light of the existence of god(s).   Therefore, not all humanists and secularists are committed to atheism.  Put another way, one does not have to be an atheist to support separation of church and state, otherwise any person who thinks that children should not receive religious instruction in public schools would have to be an atheist, which is not the case.  One does not have to be an atheist to promote the use of reason and science to lead ethical lives or answer life's most fundamental questions, otherwise many of the most influential and prominent scientists and philosophers in history would all be atheists, which is not the case.  And one does not have to be an atheist to believe in the freedom of conscience, human rights, and liberty for all, otherwise a good portion of the human race would be atheists, which is not the case.  In other words, one need not subscribe to atheism to embrace the fundamental tenets of Humanism and Secularism, because none of these principles directly contradicts the simple and isolated belief in god(s).  Theism is simply not a part of the equation here, and it is kept separate from the general approach of Humanism and Secularism, just as humanists and secularists argue that religious dogma ought to be kept separate from government. This is not anti-theism, but non-theism and non-atheism.
Modern Free-Masonry
We will now define the key characteristics of Modern Free-Masonry by examining two sources: the Grand Orient of France and the Grand Orient of the United States.
Modern Free-Masonry expresses the motto of "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity," but when we review the philosophy behind the Grand Orient of France (5), it goes much deeper than this.  From its "Observatory of Freedom of Conscience" we can derive the following key values and principles:
  • Independence of the state and all public services from any religious institution or influence
  • Absolute freedom of conscience
  • Freedom of the mind
  • Liberation in regard to all dogmas
  • The right to believe or not to believe in God
  • Autonomy of thought concerning religious, political and economical constraints
  • Emancipation of life styles in relation to taboos, prevailing ideas and dogmatic rules.
  • Mutual tolerance and the respect of others as well as oneself
  • Refusal of racism
  • Integration, not simulation of diverse ethnic groups
  • Equal rights and equal chances
At this point, these values should appear familiar to the reader. We again see an emphasis of separation of church and state, equality, tolerance, and extreme individual liberties in regard to religion. Now let's turn to the American extension of European Modern Free-Masonry, namely the Grand Orient of the United States.  Here we find the following key principles and values:
  • Freedom of conscience of all people, and that it is an essential component of liberty, equality and fraternity
  • Separation of religion and government, and religious and spiritual tolerance among all people.
  • Freedom of the press as a necessary component of maintaining the inalienable rights of all human beings, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
  • The need for higher education and life-long learning
  • An impartial judiciary system as essential to guaranteeing the preservation of human rights
  • Arts and sciences as essential elements in the progress and evolution of humanity
  • Efforts that work towards global environmental and ecological sustainability as essential to the survival of the human species
Again, the reader should see more familiar ideas here, given our prior review of Humanism and Secularism, now with the introduction of higher education, science, an impartial judiciary system, and global environment and ecological sustainability. 
We can now summarize our comparison of Modern Free-Masonry, Humanism, and Secularism. It should be evident now that the intersection of the principles and values of these three philosophies, focusing particularly on the Grand Orient of France and the United States, is more than just a few points of similarity. On the contrary, it appears that Modern Free-Masonry aligns to most all of the principles of Humanism and Secularism. All three worldviews promote freedom of conscience (thought and expression), separation of church and state, education, scientific enquiry, individual liberty, ethics rooted in reason and the human experience, tolerance, and human rights.
Some obvious points of divergence between Modern Free-Masonry and both Humanism and Secularism are the use of ritual amongst Freemasons, the study of Masonic history and symbols, and the fact that Freemasonry is a fraternity (though one can find a strong sense of fraternity in some secular oriented clubs and organizations). 
Moreover, we are not limited to the Grand Orient of France and the Grand Orient of the United States for our comparison. It should come as no surprise that there are modern Masonic orders today that strongly promote humanist and secular values, for if we examine the historical context in which 18th century speculative Freemasonry flourished and originated, namely the age of enlightenment, we again observe strong humanist and secularist values that were either championed and/or originated by Free-Masons such as Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire. What this suggests is that secular and humanist Free-Masonry is not unique to just the Grand Orient of France and the United States. In her “The Origins of Freemasonry: Facts and Fictions,” Margaret Jacob explains how when the Catholic Church in Europe condemned Freemasonry in 1738 as being a quasi religion, this fueled positioning lodges as more secular and progressive. And by 1750 being a Freemason depicted embracing the new enlightened ideas of the time (7), which included but were not restricted to separation of church and state, egalitarian values, and a view of the universe and human morality based on reason and rational methodologies.
Another piece of evidence supporting that European Freemasonry of the 18th century was definitively secular is the comparison of pocket almanacs of both Masons and the general public, as documented by Jacob:
“One remarkable feature stands out that separates most Masonic diaries from those aimed at a general audience. Most general diaries contained pious sentiments that invoked religious pieties and Godly thoughts. Not the Masonic ones. In large measure their publishers cast the contents of diaries aimed at the fraternity in decidedly secular terms” (7).
Hence, as we can see, the secular and humanist character of Free-Masonry is not an innovation by any means, but an essential feature of the origins of early 18th century speculative Free-Masonry. Modern Free-Masonry of today serves to maintain this progressive worldview, in which being strictly secular (not just in name) is indispensible toward the advancement and betterment of humanity.
God and the Bible
What does a secular and humanist Masonic order have to say on the topic of the Bible and "God"?  At this point, the answer should be clear, and it would be abundantly clear to any humanist or secularist. To be truly secular, a lodge cannot require initiates to declare nor deny belief in god(s) or a supreme being, which is certainly the case for both the Grand Orient of France and the Grand Orient of the United States. The Grand Orient of France made this very clear in their declaration of the freedom of conscience in 1877, which was a partial basis for the more religiously oriented “antient” Freemasons declaring them “irregular” (8)(9). Nor can a secular lodge require the use the Bible in its rituals and obligations, because this violates the principle of freedom of conscience (to freely choose which moral philosophy one chooses to lead his or her life) and the point that humanism and secularism are “without” religion.  Importantly, there is historical precedent for this as well, not just limited to the Grand Orients of France and the United States. According to Paul Bessel's research:
"The great principle of freemasonry in the 1700s was that it allowed men much greater freedom of conscience than most institutions had until that time, and this included tolerance of all religious attitudes within masonry. It was not until 1760 (forty-three years after the premier grand lodge was formed ) that the Grand Lodge of England changed its rules to require the Bible on lodge altars (until then Anderson's Constitutions was acceptable), and originally candidates were not asked to express a belief in God ('the laws and ritual of the original Grand Lodge in 1723 required no more of its initiates on the subject of religion than that they should be good men and true, men of honor and honesty, obeying the moral law')" (8).
We can further reinforce the view that the origins of speculative Free-Masonry were secular by reviewing the list of “complaints” that the rival “antient” and non-secular Masons waged against the earlier Modern Free-Masons. Among these charges were the observations that the Moderns de-Christianized Masonic rituals, ignored the Saints Days, the rejected of the Royal Arch degree (which was overtly Christian), and perhaps omitted prayers (10).
Hence, we can see that the first Modern Free-Masons did not themselves require candidates to believe in God, nor did they require the use of the Bible in their lodges. These requirements would not come into play until the "antient" Masons instilled more religiously conservative principles and requirements into their rival form of Masonry, which is what we see as the predominant Masonic order in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Perhaps the most simple and concise way to position the Bible and belief in god(s), in light of Modern Free-Masonry and humanist and secular values, is to state that the order does not intend, in any way or manner, to replace, substitute, or reinforce any religious beliefs or dogma. What this means is that god(s) and the Bible are completely independent and outside of the order, as they must be if Modern Free-Masonry intends to draw human beings together under a common cause, yet at the same time tolerate the diversity of potentially contradictory viewpoints on religion and god(s).
Click here to view an online version of both Part I and Part II of this article.