As one of the largest organizations in the world, Freemasonry has weathered its share of criticism. In America, questions have been raised as to whether the fraternal organization qualifies as a “cult.” The Oxford Dictionary defines cult as “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.” However, another definition describes a cult as “A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.” Obviously, the definition utilized makes a difference as to which organizations fit the term “cult.” Is Freemasonry a cult?
Sociological Analysis of Cults
The German political economist and sociologist Max Weber is considered to be a founder of Sociology: the scientific study of social behavior, including its origins, development, organization, and institutions. In his book Theory of Social and Economic Organization, Weber describes the role charismatic leaders play in the formation and operations of extreme groups such as cults.
Weber writes about charismatic leaders as possessing a “certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” Weber established a way to distinguish different religious organizations, such as churches, sects, and cults. Utilizing a continuum along which religions fall, Sociologists differentiate between protest-like orientation of sects to the equilibrium maintaining churches. The diagram below illustrates a church-sect typology continuum.
Beginning in the 1930s, Sociology was utilized to explore cults within the context of the study of religious behavior. In the sociological classifications of religious movements, a cult is a group with socially deviant or novel beliefs and practices. Sociologist Roy Wallis argued that cults are “oriented towards the problems of individuals, loosely structured, tolerant, non-exclusive” without possessing a “clear distinction between members and non-members” and having “a rapid turnover of membership.”
By sociological typology, cults are new religious groups representing a radical rejection of the teachings and beliefs of established faith traditions. Often resulting during periods of social turmoil, cults tend to operate within a distinct period of time before either collapsing or amalgamating into another larger religious group. Three main characteristics are often used in defining the “cult” status of an organization:
- Founded by a charismatic leader, as described by Max Weber
- Claim a new revelation or insight from God that deviates from traditional faiths
- Viewed with extreme suspicion by society and dominant religions
Freemasonry and Religion
Freemasonry is an ancient system designed to impart morality and ethics and teach mutual service to its members. Utilizing the matrix enumerated above, we can examine whether the organization qualifies as a cult by sociological metrics. Modern Freemasonry is generally traced back to the early 1700s although some groups claim it existed prior to the 18th century and was not founded by a single leader. Furthermore, Masonry is founded upon traditional faiths and does not espouse any new revelations. Within a Masonic Lodge, many holy texts are revered including the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, and the Hindu Vedas. All of these books provide examples of moral truths, such as the Golden Rule, and constitute ethical guides to teach individuals.
Expanding beyond sociology, general definitions of a cult, as listed at the beginning of this article, are tied to whether or not the organization is a religion. Although Masonry expresses a belief in a Supreme Deity and the immortality of the human soul, Freemasonry is not a religion. Each individual is entitled to hold their own view about the nature of God. Within Freemasonry there are Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc. In order to join Freemasonry, individuals must believe in God, but they are left to their own choice as to the attributes of God. The renown Free Masonic scholar, Albert Mackey, wrote describing the religious inclusivity of the fraternity by stating: “God is equally present with the pious Hindu in the Temple, the Jew in the Synagogue, the Mohammedan in the Mosque, and the Christian in Church.”
To qualify as a “Religion,” Academic Scholars have established characteristics including, but not limited to:
- A Plan of Salvation
- A Theology
Freemasonry contains none of these tenets which define an organization as a “Religion.” Instead Masonry seeks to make good individuals better through self-improvement, service, and brotherhood. Masonry is a fraternal organization that encourages morality, charity, and philosophical studies. It has no clergy, no sacraments, and does not promise salvation to its members. Moreover, Masonry rejects dogma and inspires individuals to utilize reason to search for Truth.
In Masonic Lodges, discussions and debates on social, philosophical, or religious questions have no other purpose than the intellectual enlightenment of its members. Such discussion enable all members to reach for a greater understanding of themselves and Humanity in the pursuit of fulfilling their duties as Freemasons. In American Co-Masonry, those duties include: to think high, to do well, to be tolerant to others, to search after truth, and to practice liberty under law, fraternal equality, justice and solidarity. Utilizing builders’ tools as symbols, Freemasonry teaches basic moral truths that enable individuals to meet in harmony and be charitable.