Defending free speech is crucial in 2018. That’s why I support Dr David Staples’ campaign to set the record straight on Freemasonry and object to unfounded discrimination against our members. However, we as an ancient and honourable order also owe it to society to explain who we are and what we do, and defend our purpose, especially following inaccurate reporting in the media.
We Freemasons have a reputation for being a bit odd. You’ve probably heard rumours that we roll up our trouser legs, give strange handshakes and meet in a blacked out room guarded by man with a drawn sword in his hand. Guess what? It’s true.
We do these things not just because we’re eccentric free spirits but because at one time this was normal behaviour for people who wanted to learn how to improve themselves. It’s a 500-year-old system that helps its members learn about themselves, improve their moral fibre and develop strong attitudes to civic responsibility and charitable work. It isn’t broken so we don’t try to fix it.
I first met Freemasonry when my then girlfriend, long since my wife, invited me to a gentlemen’s night at the Lodge of East Gate in Chester, where her mother was Worshipful Master. Many years later she encouraged me to join Ryburn Lodge in Halifax and I went on to co-write a bestselling book called The Hiram Key, which inspired the Da Vinci Code. I wrote that book to help me understand Freemasonry as nobody could, or would, explain it to me.
I discovered that Freemasonry is the oldest, non-religious, self-help organisation in the Western world. The first lodge was set up in Aberdeen around 1480 by three stonemasons, Bros Alexander Stuart, David Menzies and Matthew Wright, who wanted to study the symbols they used in their trade to learn more about the world around them. They developed a scheme which helped their apprentices to improve their self-confidence, memorise information, analyse situations and explain solutions. They soon opened their society to any men of good report who wanted to improve themselves. Stuart, Menzies and Wright became known as the Worshipful Masters of the first lodge of Symbolic Freemasons, and the ideas they started have evolved and developed into the Freemasonry of today.
Freemasonry may seem like crusty and fossilised chance to raid the dressing up box. But it uses techniques such as role-playing, memory work, public speaking, action and double-loop learning which are at the forefront of the teaching methods used in the best universities.
As Freemasons, members will be offered the chance to learn things which have already benefited older generations and which can benefit people in the future
This system has remained unparalleled until the more recent introduction of public schools such as Eton and Harrow. And it is one of the reasons why so many Freemasons have been movers and shakers in society over the years.
If you study a list of famous Freemasons – including Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, King George VI, Henry Ford, Robert Burns, Wolfgang Mozart, Harry Houdini and Sooty (Harry Corbett was organist of his lodge in Otley) – you will find a higher than expected proportion of innovative individuals. There have been jazz musicians, astronauts, soldiers, cowboys, scientists, airmen, filmmakers, actors, industrialists, prime ministers, archbishops of Canterbury, US presidents, kings and magicians among its members.
Joining a lodge offers access to an environment which enables you to learn about yourself, your fellow lodge members and society as a whole. We come together in an open lodge to study brotherly love, relief and truth. According to these three principles, we offer friendship, support and social events in the fellowship of a well-run lodge and its associated social programme. You have the chance to do good for the community by contributing either time or money to various charities. And we offer you the chance to learn how to recognise your own truth by studying the philosophy of Masonic thinking and taking part in the rituals.
There are many misconceptions about us. But we definitely do not hate women. There are separate Orders of Women Freemasons whose lodges share halls and social functions with the men. As the weird and wonderful ritual of the Third Degree involves bearing both breasts I can understand why some of our lady brethren may choose to meet separately, but there is an Order of Co-Masonry which accepts both male and female members in its lodges.
Freemasonry is not a religion, it is a philosophical system. It asks only one important question of anyone who wants to join it: do you believe there is some sort of supreme order and purpose to the universe? It does not ask the nature of your belief, as that is a private matter for you alone. But if you do not think there is any purpose to the cosmos then there is no point in your joining Freemasonry because its main objective is to enable you to meet like-minded individuals to share your ideas about the nature and purpose of life.
As Freemasons, members will be offered the chance to learn things which have already benefited older generations and which can benefit people in the future. For example, John Wallis was inspired to discover algebra and the power of the equation after first studying Masonic symbols. He taught Isaac Newton who used the tools of algebra to discover the calculus which is the basis of modern physics. Another example is George Washington, who presided over the Freemasons who wrote the American Constitution, based on the democratic principles of the Masonic Lodge, and became the first democratically elected ruler of the US.
Freemasonry is dedicated to preserving the best of its ways, as well as enjoying eccentric, historical, hierarchical absurdities which have such a distinguished history. We want to pass on our secret insights about the human condition, to inspire generations to come.
Dr Robert Lomas is a quantum physicist, a Freemason and author of various books, including The Hiram Key and Freemasonry for Beginners