Practically every major city in America has a Masonic temple, often a grand structure featuring an ornate stone facade, towering columns and a sprawling interior. However, exactly what goes on behind closed doors remains a mystery to most outsiders. The Freemasons, an international fraternal organization, are known for keeping their activities secret.
For centuries, that penchant for secrecy has fueled countless conspiracy theories — Masons have been accused of everything from plotting world domination to acting as an agent of the pope. In recent years, the novelist Dan Brown has drawn heavily on Masonic lore and symbolism in his best-selling novels “Angels and Demons” and “The Da Vinci Code.”
Although the organization maintains no particular religious affiliation, its largely aging male membership — there are a few women, too — does espouse certain ideals of a metaphysical nature. Masons live by a moral code that emphasizes charity and community service.
Dustin Erwin, a 26-year-old graduate student at the University of San Francisco, is a member of the Freemasons in San Francisco. I interviewed him by e-mail last week.
Why did you decide to join the Freemasons?
I joined for a number of reasons. For one, I’ve always been interested in “secretive” societies. Even though Freemasons are adamant that they are not a “secret society” but rather a “society with secrets,” it still had that mysterious attraction. I also have an interest in European/Christian/early American history, and the history of the Freemasons is absolutely fascinating.
Secondly, I was raised in a suburban, Protestant household. So I’ve had a fair amount of exposure to Christianity. But as I got older, went to college, began studying philosophy and other religions, I took issue with the “my way is right, your way is wrong” mentality that many of the Christians I was raised around had. I wouldn’t say I was ever an atheist, but I was a hard-core agnostic.
I wanted a way to get closer to God. I wanted some rational spiritual structure and guidelines. Freemasonry turned out to be exactly this — a system of morality. In fact, one of their mottos is “We make good men better.”
Tell me more about the Freemasons’ idea of morality. What are the main ideas?
It’s a very simple concept: Masons seek to improve themselves and help others not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because we want to do it. All of the major religions share some variation of this same idea, and that is part of the reason why Freemasonry is so welcoming of people from different backgrounds. It really all boils down to this simple theme.
So you don’t have to be part of a particular religion to join?
A Freemason can be of any faith. The only requisite is that he believe in a supreme being (whom they diplomatically refer to as “The Great Architect of the Universe”).
Why did you think that Freemasonry would help you “get closer to God,” as you put it earlier?
I feel like being righteous is about much, much more than simply believing and praying; it’s about your actions. I liked the fact that Freemasonry reinforced the idea that one’s actions are as important as one’s faith or intentions. In this way, I felt it might help put me on the right track in being closer to God.
I want to point out that I’m not on a high horse or preaching or trying to tell you all how good I am. I’m very, very far from perfect, and I’m still very far from where I want to be. But you have to figure out which direction you’re walking before you can take that first step, and I feel like Freemasonry is the compass in this sense.
Was it difficult to become a member? Did they make you jump through a lot of hoops?
Joining was not that difficult. It’s a rather long story, but I’ll summarize by saying that a Mason friend took me to a lodge dinner where he introduced me to several members. I filled out an application signed by two sponsors, paid my application fee and waited for a couple of months. Then I was contacted by three Masons individually, who asked if they could come to my apartment to interview me.
What did they want to know?
It was less intimidating than you might think. They asked questions like, What did I hope to get out of Masonry? What do I do [for a living]? Had I ever been arrested? And then there was some basic small talk. I think they were just trying to get a sense of what kind of person I am.
The Freemasons are known for their unusual initiation rituals, although exactly what goes on is kept secret. What can you tell me about them?
The initiation is essentially a drama that begins to reveal and explain the symbolism and ritual of Masonry. It was a little strange in that it was very old and completely foreign to me. I’ve never been a joiner — I was never in a college fraternity or anything.
There is no tomfoolery involved, and it’s meant to be a very solemn event. It turned out to be a very intriguing and memorable experience.
Was the process upsetting or scary?
It definitely wasn’t upsetting. And I wouldn’t quite call it scary either. I was out of my element, for sure, which made it slightly uncomfortable. I really didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be completely benign — there was no hazing involved.
Tell me about your lodge. How often do you meet?
There are lodge events nearly every week. As an entered apprentice, a sort of entry-level Mason, I am not permitted to attend all of the events — so far I’ve only been to dinners. Like I said, I’m very new to this.
What happens at meetings?
Some nights they do “degree work,” where a Mason is promoted to a higher level, and some nights are strictly social functions. There is a large social component to being a Freemason. You have to realize that many members are retired, and this is their primary social outlet. However, I have noticed that many of the new members are younger (in their 20s), and I’ve read that there are more younger people joining.
Is it true that you have a secret handshake?
There are a few handshakes.
I’m sure you’re aware that Freemasonry has been linked to numerous conspiracy theories over the centuries. It’s been described in some circles as an occult and even an evil power. What do you make of these claims?
I really can’t answer this question for fear of my life — just kidding! For the most part, I find these claims to be ridiculous. If you were to walk into the lodge on any given night, you’d find a bunch of good-natured older guys playing billiards and telling unfunny jokes. It’s not like there is a dark-robed master sacrificing goats by candlelight or anything.
I think most conspiracy theories stem from the unknown. For example, we don’t know who killed JFK, and therefore there are countless conspiracy theories about who did it. Most people are uninformed or misinformed about Freemasonry, and I think this is the cause of a lot of it. From what I’ve seen, the Masons are about as harmless as the Girl Scouts.
The group has also been seen by some religious leaders, particularly the Catholic Church, as a threat to their beliefs.
I honestly don’t understand why certain religious leaders condemn Freemasonry. I suspect it’s mostly influenced by power and paranoia.
Like I said, I was raised Christian — Sunday school, Bible camp, the whole nine yards. And everything I know about Freemasonry is completely compatible with Christianity and has really provided me with a way to implement those principles into my life.
What do your friends think about your joining the Freemasons?
It’s quite funny to try to explain it to them. They’re like, “Isn’t that some sort of satanic cult?” It can be tough, especially in San Francisco. I don’t come across a lot of people my age wanting to talk about God, religion or righteousness. When I’ve tried to bring these things up at bars or parties, the conversation tends to die, although I think that is changing.
I think a lot of younger people are getting tired of our increasingly materialistic and shallow culture, and are looking for something more traditional. I know that was part of the appeal for me. You can only hang out in bars and go to shows for so long. I felt like I needed something more relevant and lasting.
By David Ian Miller
During his far-flung career in journalism, Bay Area writer and editor David Ian Miller has worked as a city hall reporter, personal finance writer, cable television executive and managing editor of a technology news site. His writing credits include Salon.com, Wired News and The New York Observer.
His “Finding My religion” series of interviews that you can find in SFGate.com look at individual experience of how different people found their religion. It is considered that this is a subject close to all Templars heart, that will surely resonate with some of our own individual experiences, helping us understand how mystical traditions far apart from ours have so many common points. You will also read about people that today follow mystical disciplines that it is said the historical Templar Order was familiar with, including Sufism, Kaballah, Gnosticism, Sacred Geometry, Meditation, etc.
Photos of the Grand Lodge of New York and Temple – Luis de Matos (c) 2007