A Focus on Masonic Research, News, and other Tidbits

Homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Stupid Atheists and Irreligious Libertines

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.


Masonic Traveler said...

Why do I feel like this came from the pulpit?

Nice piece PB.

The Palmetto Bug said...

Glad you liked it, Traveler. There was no pulpit involved. In fact, I don't think I have seen a pulpit in at least fifteen years.

Masonic Traveler said...

you irreligious libertine... :)

San Diego Freemason said...

Brother Bug,

I agree that Anderson was saying that masons should be Theists, but you might have noticed that he is saying "a Mason, if he rightly understands the art..", implying that a person could be a Mason and still be an Atheist or a Libertine. If Atheists or Libertines could not join the fraternity, then the statement would make no sense.


The Palmetto Bug said...


Let me make sure I understand this. Are you saying that a Mason, if he doesn't understand what being a Mason is all about, can be an atheist or irreligious libertine?

With all due respect, that would be like saying that only ignorant Masons are allowed to be atheists and irreligious libertines.

Personally, I think Anderson, when he included "if he rightly understands the art," was trying to drive some point home - that point being that becoming a Mason goes beyond just obtaining the title of such.

San Diego Freemason said...

Brother Bug,

You may be right about Anderson's intent, however, his statement still leaves open the possibility that there were masons that did not "rightly understand" the art as Anderson understood it.

I would argue also that as Freemasonry had existed for some time prior to Anderson writing his constitutions, it is possible that there were other opinions regarding what Freemasonry consisted of.

Should Anderson be considered the final authority regarding Freemasonry? At one time Freemasonry was an entirely Christian organization. That has since changed.

The real difference, as I see it, is between those that feel there are certain fundamental aspects of Freemasonry that can never be changed, and those that feel Freemasonry is open to evolving without losing it's essential character.

Tolerance, Freedom of belief, the brotherhood of Man, Free inquiry. These can be summed up in the three words, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity."

The Palmetto Bug said...


I am sure that there were various opinions concerning Freemasonry during Anderson's time. That first charge reflects that fact. Though Freemasonry was dominated by Christianity in those days, I think it is noteworthy in that it was not Christian centric.

I am one of those that feels that certain things about Freemasonry cannot be changed or else it ceases to be Freemasonry. Along those lines, I have yet to find any teachings concerning tolerance in my Freemasonic studies (and I am rather studious). Tolerance has become a code word for "looking the other way" and "keeping your mouth shut" even when you see things that disagree with your core values.

Light bulb went off! I now have an idea for a new article.

Masonic Traveler said...

PB, you said "I have yet to find any teachings concerning tolerance", and with that I woudl disagree.

To the contrary, I think the very fact that Masonry accepts men of all faiths, illustrates an unspoken tolerance of the fraternity itself.

Its a degree of implied tolerance.

The Palmetto Bug said...


"Implied" may be a key word in your last comment. The education offered by a study of Freemasonry can lead the individual to various implications that may or may not have been the intent of the various lessons.

We can look at your statement concerning the acceptance of men of all faiths as a talking point. To some Masonic students the lessons may imply that the Fraternity accepts men of ALL faiths - but does it really? As a rule, it does not. In fact, I have never read anything outside of an opinion piece that states the Fraternity accepts men of ALL faiths. An atheist, for example and in my opinion, actually has a faith. He has faith in himself and in his belief and hope that he has it right by rejecting a belief in a Supreme Being. The Fraternity does not accept an atheist's self-faith, however.

Back to the word "tolerance": Though I can not think of a single time I have ever seen the would used in ritual or lectures, I will agree that there is some implied tolerance in Freemasonry. I would describe it as restricted tolerance since it does not extend to all faiths and belief systems. In fact, Freemasonry is rather intolerant of certain things. If this was not the case, there would be no need for investigation committees and ballot boxes.

This makes for an interesting and enjoyable discussion and I appreciate all of the comments.

Silence Dogood said...

I think the argument surrounding whether atheists should be allowed into Freemasonry is a dead horse and we are beating it to death. The establishment of Masonry has made it clear that if you cease to require men to believe in a Supreme Being, then there is no recognition for you. That doesn't seem to be changing anytime soon.

The other issue, and most important of the arguments regarding the first charge, is the fact that it opens Masonry to men of all faiths. It explicitly says that it is not Masonry does not require its initiates to be Christian. Yet, we have evidence that several Grand Lodges in the U.S. do not follow this part of the charge.

So which violation of the charge is worse: allowing atheists in lodge or not allowing anyone who is not a Christian? I think that is the more relevant question to the state of today's Masonry.

The Palmetto Bug said...


The purpose of my original post was not to debate whether atheists should be Masons or not. I agree that we all know they can not be. I was simply breaking down the intent of that old charge into more modern terms. Peter - I'm sure - has a different take on it, however.

I agree with you in that a "Christian only" Freemasonry is contrary to the ideals of the Fraternity.

Magpie Mason said...

Brethren, please see the new edition of Ars Quatuor Coronatorum for a brilliant paper by Bro. Chris Impens titled "The First Charge Revisited," which I think addresses all of your concerns.

The Palmetto Bug said...


I am sure I would enjoy reading "The First Charge Revisited" but I am afraid that I do not have access to such. Can you point me/us in the right direction?

Magpie Mason said...

Bro. Palmetto,

Membership in the Quatuor Coronati Correspondence Circle is highly recommended. The AQC is the research lodge's annual book of transactions, the most recent volume of which is where you'll find the aforementioned paper.

Click on:

Lodges may join the QCCC as institutional members.

San Diego Freemason said...

Brother Bug,

Not to diverge to much from the subject, but I have always been disturbed by the fact that Swedish Freemasonry is only open to Christians, yet is recognized by the UGLE and other "Regular" jurisdictions. To me, the fact that Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc., cannot become Masons in Sweden does not seem that much different from the lodges here that will not accept African-Americans. It goes against what Freemasonry has traditionally stood for. I have raised this issue before with others, including some in the Liberal community that you do not consider Masons, and the general response has been, "No big deal" essentially. I happen to think that it is. What if the "Regular" GL of India stated that only Hindus could become members? The Swedish practice clearly violates Anderson's Constitutions.


Due East said...

I have always viewed this to mean something more to the affect of when a Mason becomes adept in the knowledge of the Craft he(his heart) would surely lead him away from such a stance a one of an atheist. As the teachings of the Craft are centered in building ones faith and morals. Just my 15 cents.