Go take a Pike!
Most people who know of my online habits and haunts know that I spend what is probably an inordinate amount of time in the company of some odd and sometimes unsavory characters. No, I’m not talking about The Burning Taper (at least, not specifically); rather, I’m talking about the places on the internet where those who are predisposed against Freemasonry tend to congregate. While there are plenty of blogs, web sites and online forums, my favorite place to watch the konspiracy krowd is on Usenet. Perhaps because Usenet is the remnant of the old Internet, it is often frequented by people who one can easily imagine sitting on an overturned recycling bucket, typing away on a desk made of milk crates and boards at an old, cast-off 386 PC, with pictures of UFOs on the wall sporting, Fox Mulder-like, the catch phrase “I want to believe.”
Yes, this is my secret shame: whenever I’m feeling down and blue, or if I’ve had a bad day at work, or even if I’m just having a bad hair day, I put on my fingerless gloves, crank up the 1980s punk rock, and head down the Information Superhighway to those little dark corners of the net in order to watch – and sometimes to bait – the Anti-Masons.
Don’t look at me in that tone of voice. It’s cheaper than gambling, and easier on my health than drinking.
Anyhow, it’s long been my contention that anti-Masons tend to fall into three rather broadly defined groups; the religious, the konspiracists, and the kooks. In general, you can tell which in group an anti belongs by looking at the content and context of their argument:
“You Masons are a false religion, you worship Baphoment, and the glory of the LORD will see your downfall. You’ll burn in HELL for all eternity for promoting your lies and falsehoods!”
“Not only are you Masons in league with the Illuminati and the Council on Foreign Relations, you also have a secret lair underneath the Denver Airport.”
“Damn kids – get the hell off of my lawn! Just ‘cos your fathers are Freemasons, you think that I won’t try to take you all to court for harassment? I know all those Masons look out for each other downtown, but I’ll be sittin’ on the porch with my shotgun full o’rock salt next time, y’hear me?”
Note: if you are not sure as to which group each statement belongs, then perhaps you should not be reading this.
Those people with religious objections to the fraternity are often the most difficult to deal with because they aren’t often swayed by reason. Unfortunately, they are more often swayed by sensationalized and overly dramatic presentations by slick-haired preachers, most of whom seem to be more interested in filling the coffers of their ministries than in promoting things like “truth” and “tolerance.” Admittedly, I have a difficult time understanding this because it seems that most of those with religious objections to Freemasonry tend to practice more fundamentalist versions of their faiths, which is often associated with very literalistic interpretations of their scriptures. One would think that such literal-minded thinking would be less prone to influence by the sensationalism peddlers.
Be that as it may, most of the arguments that I see between religious Antis and Masons seem to center around the writings of several noted Masonic authors, with the the Antis pointing to passages in various books and saying “See, you lying evil monger? This passage PROVES that Masonry is a religion,” and Masons responding by saying “You’re barmy, you daft old goat! Nobody can define the Craft that way.”
Etc., etc. Hilarity ensues.
My own perspective is that Masons intending to argue (for example) the finer points of
Albus Dumbledore Albert Pike are doomed to frustration; most fundamentalists will be more interested in promoting their own views than in learning about Masonry. More to the point, Masons trying to argue the finer points of any Masonic author of a century ago will need to discuss the issues in terms of symbolism, allegory, and metaphor, all of which are unlikely to be understood by those looking at the issues with a more literal-minded perspective. Literalism itself is not necessarily a bad quality; however, it is particularly ill suited for discussions that range off into the esoteric. Masons in such situations will inevitably find that while both of you are speaking English, you will seem to lack a common language.
It’s not unlike dealing with teenagers, in that respect.
A secondary issue is that, as blogger John Ratcliff points out, most Masons (at least, in the US) aren’t all that up to speed on the esoterica. And again, this isn’t a bad thing itself – Masonry is large, it contains multitudes. However, it does mean that most Masons will actually be unfamiliar with many of the oft-quoted paragraphs of Pike, Mackey, Hall, or Hodapp. This is perfectly normal, however, and rest assured that if you are in a discussion about Pike with an anti-Mason, he or she probably has not read much of it either. In my own experience, most of the Antis who quote Pike always quote the same paragraphs, almost as if they are reading the same books or websites by the uber-Antis who all quote exactly the same passages. Of course, I also suspect that Pike’s “Morals & Dogma” is one of the top ten books that Masons pick up and put down long before they’ve finished it.
I think that my copy makes a very nice paperweight.
Since Pike is by far the most quoted author by Anti-Masons, I think it’s worth addressing some of those points directly.
One of the most difficult things for Anti-Masons understand about the Craft (and indeed, this is true even for some old-time Master Masons, as well) is that there is no underlying philosophy, doctrine or dogma to Freemasonry on which all of the members agree. That is, while Masons are encouraged to study for their own personal improvement, and while there have been some excellent writings in the past and will likely be more in the future, not one of them is accepted as doctrinal. Indeed, even Morals & Dogma – referenced probably by more Antis than actual Masons – contains this passage in the Preface:
“The teachings of these Readings are not sacramental, so far as they go beyond the realm of Morality into those of other domains of Thought and Truth. The Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite uses the word “Dogma” in its true sense, of doctrine, or teaching; and is not dogmatic in the odious sense of that term. Every one is entirely free to reject and dissent from whatsoever herein may seem to him to be untrue or unsound. It is only required of him that he shall weigh what is taught, and give it fair hearing and unprejudiced judgment. Of course, the ancient theosophic and philosophic speculations are not embodied as part of the doctrines of the Rite; but because it is of interest and profit to know what the Ancient Intellect thought upon these subjects, and because nothing so conclusively proves the radical difference between our human and the animal nature, as the capacity of the human mind to entertain such speculations in regard to itself and the Deity. But as to these opinions themselves, we may say, in the words of the learned Canonist, Ludovicus Gomez: “Opiniones secundum varietatem temporum senescant et intermoriantur, aliæque diversæ vel prioribus contrariæ renascantur et deinde pubescant.”
So, let’s extract the basics.
1) M&D is not an authoritative, definitive, or canonical work.
2) Masons (or more specifically, Scottish Rite Masons- Southern Jurisdiction, to whom this book was given until the early 1960s) are free to disagree with Pike’s interpretations.
3) The ancient teachings described by Pike are not even a part of the ritual; they are discussed simply as an illustration of their moral evolution.
To me, it seems pretty obvious that M&D was written for Masons interested in in exploring the nature of their relationship to their Deity, written from a perspective of comparing theology of some of the older religions dating back to the Egyptians. This point is pretty obvious to most Masons, but it somehow escapes the attention of the Antis, who are more interested in extracting short passages out of context that seem to support their position that Masonry is a religion unto itself, and possibly a demon-worshiping one, at that.
Antis also have a hard time believing that not all Masons are on board with this religion thing, much less that few Masons have actually read Pike. In trying to explain that Pike was a great thinker, but that his writing might have been above most of those who received copies of this book, they express doubt. Why would the SRSJ hand out the books if it weren’t required reading, they ask. And truth be told, the explanation does sound lame: Because no one person speaks for Freemasonry; not having a dogma, Freemasonry has no requirement that its members study any particular author. One can almost imagine the raised eyebrow while Antis pose the question: Yeah, right. You expect me to believe that your organization survived several hundred years without having so much as a mission statement?
Yes, it seems unbelievable that the fraternity has survived for centuries without some kind of “mission statement,” but it’s my opinion (and since I’m a respected Masonic writer, it must be true) that the lack of a formal doctrine has actually contributed to the longevity of the Fraternity. The Ancient Charges themselves make it clear that the essential points of membership, and the qualities venerated by the membership, are to be men who are trustworthy and honest, and who have a belief in a Supreme Being.
Yes, it’s really that simple.
Again, this is the part where non-Masons get it wrong; that some men write about Freemasonry in such loving and lofty terms often reserved for religious discussion leads some of them to assume that they do so because Freemasonry actually is a religion – albeit one in which the overwhelming majority of members don’t seem to recognize it as such.
More astounding, though, is the incredible lapse in reasoning that goes along with this thinking. What kind of religion is it in which the members don’t believe they are practicing? Furthermore, considering that most Masons in the US and UK practice some form of Christianity, what kind of religion is it in which the members believe that they belong to a different religion entirely? This is akin to visiting a synagogue or church and trying to tell the people that what they are really practicing is Santaria.
It’s amazing when you think about it; the entire purpose of the Fraternity is to be exactly that: a fraternity. To develop the bonds of friendship among those who would have otherwise remained at a perpetual distance. It’s a testament to the power of this simple bonding, the creation of friendships among men of different ages, religions, ethnic backgrounds that so many men speak so highly of their experiences with the Craft. It’s difficult to explain to an Anti, or even to a non-Mason, that feeling one gets when visiting a strange city and bumping into a person wearing a ring with the Square & Compasses, or being invited to a dinner at a strange lodge while on a business trip, or even the elevation of one’s spirits at the end of a bad day at work when walking into one’s mother lodge and being greeted by people that you know. It’s not a “religious” experience in the sense that there is nothing inherently spiritual, but it can an uplifting and calming experience, especially so for men of an age who are more accustomed to being strong and silent.
At this point, the quick-witted Anti might think to ask “If no one man speaks for Masonry, then why should I believe your explanation over those of the great authors of the last century?” This is actually a very good question, and one that Masons themselves might want to consider before we tackle it in the next installment of Freemasonarianism: The Religion of Freemasonry.