A Mason is obliged, by his tenure, to obey the moral law, and if he rightly understands the art, he will never be a stupid atheist nor an irreligious libertine.[i]The above statement from the first of the Old Charges is, undoubtedly, rather tough and to the point – especially to those not of the Craft of Freemasonry. Bearing in mind that it was written over two hundred and eighty seven years ago, it was probably a rather tame comment for the time. But what does this statement really mean? Let us examine it piece by piece.
A Mason is obliged…:
This one is easy to understand. The phrase could be slightly reworded to read, “A Mason is ‘obligated’” and it would still mean basically the same thing.
…by his tenure…:
This refers to while the Mason is just that – a Mason.
…to obey the moral law…:
Moral law should not be confused with civil law. Moral law resides within a man’s heart and is not mandated by the laws of the nation in which he resides. This moral law that resides in the heart does not exist within a vacuum, however. What is in a man’s heart is influenced by outside forces. For most men, the primary outside force is the moral teachings of their respective religious faiths. Moral law is that which makes men choose between right and wrong. It is what determines if a man is honorable or not. A man reacts according to his moral law because it is what he feels to be the right thing to do and he does it because he wants to not because he has to. Civil law exists only because there are men who do not have a valid moral law. Those types of men must be forced to do the right thing under the threat of some sort of material punishment.
…rightly understands the art…:
The Society of Freemasons, as any studious Freemason knows, contains an art. The Mason that understands this art will also understand this charge in its entirety.
…a stupid atheist…:
The addition of the word “stupid” in front of “atheist” is important. This phrase implies that an atheist is stupid due his lack of belief in a Supreme Being. Digging in between the lines, it tells us that an atheist is incapable of understanding faith. An atheist can only understand what he can touch, see, hear, taste, and smell. An atheist is incapable of using a sixth sense and, therefore, he is stupid – he is handicapped.
…an irreligious libertine.
This may be the most confusing of the phases due to the fact that the use and intent of the word “libertine” has changed very much over the years. Using the intent of the words in the 1720s; an irreligious libertine is a person who does not believe that he is responsible for his own moral – or immoral – behavior. He is morally irresponsible.
So let us now put this sentence from the first Old Charge into more modern words.
A Mason is obligated, while he remains a Mason, to be a man of good morals, and if he truly comprehends the teachings of Freemasonry, he will not be handicapped by subscribing to atheism and he will not be morally irresponsible.
[i] Charges of a Freemason, Grand Lodge of England, 1722.