Sunday, March 12, 2017


Although Masonry is not a religion, it is an organization of religious men. Among us, belief in a Creator is universal. And yet, we live in a world that is populated with Atheists as well. Sometimes, that's even in our own families.

And yet, "By the exercise of Brotherly Love, we are taught to regard the whole human species as one family—the high, the low, the rich, the poor—who, as created by one Almighty Parent, and inhabitants of the same planet, are to aid, support, and protect each other."

Should we take these words at their face value... and I think we must... they necessarily apply to the atheist as well as those who are religious.

Lately this was brought to my mind at the deathbed of a relative... the mother of my favorite cousins. A pious woman, she was on life support with no hope of recovery or improvement. I felt compelled to go visit even though I knew it was unlikely that she, in her delirium, would even recognize me... and that was the case.

Her three adult children are faced with a very difficult decision... Two of them, with faith in God, face the inevitable with calm resignation mingled with hope. The third came out of the consulting room with emotions unchecked. I thought back to the loss of my own parents, and the realization that no matter how old you are, when your parents are gone, you feel like an orphan. I realized that my cousin was anticipating that feeling. Furthermore, as an atheist, she does not have God to rely on. Deeply in pain and needing emotional comfort, the only thing she has to lean on is the people around her. She couldn't get comfort from her siblings... they were just two-to-one "against" her in the consulting room. She was very much alone.

Then I knew why I was compelled to drive the many hours to be there. I gave my cousin a hug and the words, "I know it's hard... it will be OK. We're here." This wasn't a time for proselytizing or witnessing. It was a time for human comfort. Later, over a meal, the rest of us could talk about the comfort of the Spirit among ourselves in her presence, so she could be guided, not pushed. And maybe it will work. One thing I know is that all those who come to the Lord must do so of their own free will and accord.

Another thing I know is that although we often hear the words, "but especially brother Masons" in our various charges, that does not change the fact that they are preceded by the words "all mankind". Compassion -- Charity -- Brotherly Love -- are never to be reserved, but freely given. When given freely, your store is never diminished, but increased; and that is a true miracle.

Cowans and Eavesdroppers

Masonry uses a lot of language that is archaic unusual to modern ears. As the language outside the lodge has continued to evolve over hundreds of years, much of the language inside has not. Take the honorific "worshipful" as applied to the master of a lodge, for instance. This, to American ears, has a ring of irreverence that is completely unwarranted. Within a lodge it's used in the very same sense that it continues to be used in Great Britain today when addressing a mayor or magistrate as "Your Worship". It is merely a sign of deference. It is the language outside the lodge that has changed, leaving many people ignorant of its original meaning.

Another phrase in common use is "cowans and eavesdroppers". Eavesdroppers is fairly easy, as it's a word still in common use. It means to attempt to secretly listen in. Some sources might tell you that an eavesdropper hid in the eaves to accomplish this, but that's not exactly right. Rather, the eaves of a house is where the roof overhangs the wall. The eavesdrop is where the rain falls to the ground, directly beneath the edge of the roof. An eavesdropper is one who stands in the eavesdrop, close to a wall or window, so as to hear the voices within.

But what of cowan? This is a word that doesn't have much of a meaning outside of a Masonic lodge. It's so unfamiliar that many Masons don't recognize it themselves, mispronouncing it "coward" instead.

Let's first quickly dispense with what it isn't. It isn't related to the English surname "Cowan". That came to us as an Anglicisation of the Gaelic surname MacEoin (son of Eoin). The "mac" was dropped except for the consonant, and a coincidentally similar name was thus formed. One theory, recorded by Albert Mackey in the Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, holds that cowan is simply a form of the word "common". He cites as a reference An Historical Account of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters by Edward Basil Jupp. I looked it up and sure enough, there it was, spelled "coen" as well as "comon". (here's a bit more on that society) In Britain the word "common" still refers to that which lacks distinction or nobility, and this is also applied to people. Thus Parliament is composed of a House of Lords and a House of Commons.

Dry-stone wall as built by a cowan
(image by TR001 via Wikimedia)

St. Brides in Douglas, Scotland
a product of 14th century masons
Click these images to enlarge.
In the ancient operative masonic sense a cowan or cowaner was a stoneworker who was untrained in the craft of operative masonry; who built without using mortar or first dressing the stone. You can find such stonework throughout the British isles, as the soil was strewn with rubble and something had to be done with it. In the operative sense, cowan wasn't a particularly pejorative term... it was just a fact describing the man's skills and occupation.

The first we hear about it in relation to masonry is from the Schaw Statutes, two manuscripts dated 1598 and 1599. You can read them, along with some commentary, in the linked PDF. In particular, item #15 reads, "That no Master or Fellow of Craft receive any cowans to work in his society or company, nor send none of his servants to work with cowans under pain of twenty pounds so often as any person offends thereunto."  Even to this day, as a matter of tradition, the Tiler of a lodge denies entry to all cowans.

In operative lodges, that tradition was not unbroken. It was possible for rare exceptions to be made for cowans to work with masons, but such work was strictly limited.

Over time, speculative masonry split away from the operative craft (which, perhaps surprisingly, still survives!) and aspects of the speculative lodge that were originally wholly practical became symbolic. As the work of a cowan is objectively inferior to that of an operative master mason, the word took on the pejorative sense that this implies. Thus, the term cowan in modern speculative use has completely lost its sense of utility and has become a label of contempt. Today it simply means a poser; someone who tries to pass himself off as a Freemason. Rather than simply attempting to overhear Masonic secrets, a cowan is one who attempts to gain fraudulent access to a lodge or masonic secrets.

Available on
The Schaw statutes are fascinating, and I encourage you to read them and other ancient manuscripts.

Find more information on the history of the term cowan at

A Season for Brotherly Love

Today I offer, not admonishment, but advice.

Masonry is not a religion. However, it is composed of men of faith. And not exclusively the Christian faith, either. As we are taught in the first degree,
By the exercise of Brotherly Love, we are taught to regard the whole human species as one family—the high, the low, the rich, the poor—who, as created by one Almighty Parent, and inhabitants of the same planet, are to aid, support, and protect each other. On this principle, Masonry unites men of every country, sect, and opinion, and conciliates true friendship among those who might otherwise have remained at a perpetual distance.
Many of our brethren are Jewish, or Hindu, or any of a number of religions. So long as they believe in a Supreme Being, they are welcome, as it should be. And as we progress in the craft, we're encouraged to learn more about religions other than our own, in order to better understand our fellow humans, be they Freemasons or not. We are, after all, admonished to act upon the square and keep our passions within due bounds with all mankind, not just brother Masons. We're not secretive about this: it is our purpose.

As tempting as it may be as an American Christian to say, "We say Merry Christmas: like it or leave", it's hardly the Masonic thing to do. It is the season of Christmas, yes. It's also a season of celebration for other faiths. We cannot respect our fellows without respecting that. And yes, even the atheists who cannot be made Masons deserve the human consideration of being able to celebrate for the sake of celebration and be a little less dour and a little more giving in this short span of time.

This tolerance is something that should be given freely and without hesitation, without even the pause to think about it. Christ Himself did not confine His company or His blessings solely to those who were blameless or who believed in Him first. Just as His example brought people closer to God, it also teaches us a lesson regarding our own deportment. As we conduct ourselves, let us not forget that God created all men, even the ones we don't like.

Certainly "Christmas" by definition requires Christ, so say "Merry Christmas" without guilt or fear. But, while those celebrating the holidays without Him are celebrating something else that coincidentally takes place at the same time, by the free will with which they're endowed they are truly entitled to that. If you're Christian and someone says to you, "Happy Holidays", know that this all-encompassing greeting includes Christmas. So when you hear it, understand that they're either Christians who are not sure of your faith and they're being polite; or they're not Christians and they're still being polite, wishing you happiness. Any offense that you take is offense you brought with you: discard it. If, perchance, they are actually trying to rile you, then remove the power of their preconceptions by accepting their "well wishes" in the spirit in which you would have liked it to have been given.

And if they take offense with you, ignore it. The world has larger problems than who took offense at some offense that gave offense because someone else was offended by the offenses... It never ends, and eventually, you can't remember where it even started. Often we can best address the failings of others by correcting our own. In such a way we can set an example that brings people together rather than driving them apart.

This is not the time for division, derision, rescission, excision and collision. It is a time for Brotherly Love for all Mankind. It is a time to aid, support, and protect each other. It is a time to unite men of every country, sect, and opinion, and to conciliate true friendship among those who might otherwise have remained at a perpetual distance. It is a time to practice Masonry at its very fullest, to the best of our ability.

Merry Christmas, my brethren; and a Happy New Year.

Happy Holidays, too!

"Can you keep a secret...?"

So can I.


One of the things that makes people suspicious of Freemasonry is its reputation of being a "secret organization". If Freemasonry is a secret organization, it's not very good at it. Its lodges are identified with signage. Its members wear rings, hats, jackets, and other paraphernalia bearing the symbol of the fraternity, and they often drive cars bearing the same. They take part in Christmas parades, circuses, public fundraisers and other public activities. Its members are known to the public. Websites like this one publish details of their philosophy.

In short, as an organization, Freemasonry is rather open.

Freemasons, however, do keep certain secrets that are shared only with other members of the fraternity. It's a practice that started in antiquity, but there are practical reasons we maintain the custom to the present day.


There's nothing nefarious about keeping a secret. Everybody keeps secrets. You don't publicize your bank account and the PIN that secures it. There are locks on your home and on your car. Here in the United States you have Constitutional protections against unwarranted search and seizure, and your privacy is recognized as a basic right. Those things that are of great value to you are the things that you personally endeavor to keep most secret. No one is suspicious of you for doing so. I presume that you are not suspicious of others for doing the same.

The FBI aggressively combats
corporate espionage (link)
Commercial institutions have other secrets. Valuables in safes and confidential finances, yes; but also trade secrets that are protected by custom and law. The Colonel's 11 herbs and spices. A tire manufacturer's rubber formulation. Perhaps it would surprise you to learn that we give trade secrets even more legal protection than we do patents and copyrights. Stealing a trade secret can land you in jail for industrial espionage; and unlike a patent, a trade secret can never expire. Yet no one is suspicious of an outstanding chef for having a "secret recipe".

This poster was used in
WWII to remind people
of the virtue of secrecy.
As a country, we have vital secrets that we entrust to certain individuals. The owners of those secrets... the citizens of the nation... do not even know what they are. These include things like military secrets; troop deployments and capability, or our nuclear bomb codes. Here, the higher the value of the secret, the greater the level of trust we place in those to whom they are entrusted. In fact, this is such commonplace knowledge that we have codified levels of trust that we call "security clearance". We classify information as "confidential", "secret" or "top secret", and above top secret we continue with "sensitive compartmented information". We legally secure information with oaths and non-disclosure agreements. Even in personal interactions we do the same... we often say, "swear you won't tell anyone!" before giving over the secret. The recipient may offer to undergo frightening consequences for failure, crossing his heart and HOPING to DIE.

Of course he doesn't really hope to die. He's simply expressing the depth of his sincerity; the trials that he would willingly undertake rather than betray the trust placed in him.

These things are simply true at every level of society:
  • We value those things we keep secret.
  • We entrust them to people we find trustworthy.
  • The more trustworthy the person, the more important the secret he may maintain.
  • The ability to maintain a secret is a virtue.
In fact, a person's trustworthiness is both demonstrated and measured by the ability to keep the secrets entrusted to him. We would have no confidence whatsoever in the soldier who could not keep these secrets inviolate. How long do you suppose a general would keep his position if in the name of "openness" and "transparency" he were to publish our nuclear launch codes?

And that gives us a bit of a catch-22... 
We give our secrets only to those we trust, but their trustworthiness is only proven by their ability to keep a secret.
Clearly, someone must take the first step.


The catch-22 I described has always been recognized. In Freemasonry we deal with it with a graduated series of "degrees". At each degree the candidate is given some bit of new knowledge. For the purpose of this test, it doesn't really matter what that piece of knowledge is. The important part is keeping it inviolate. By this means he demonstrates his trustworthiness to receive more information should circumstances require candor and confidentiality. Every Master Mason has demonstrated this, as have those who have progressed further in appellate bodies like the Shrine, and York and Scottish Rites.

"Can you keep a secret...?" is a question I never have to ask of my Masonic brethren.

Beyond those means of recognition... signs and tokens, such as the highly-publicized "secret handshakes"... and those secrets that Masons may entrust to one another in fraternal confidence, there is surprisingly little of Freemasonry that is truly secret. Our Constitution and Code is published in plain-text.  It contains the organizational structure and by-laws of the fraternity; detailed explanations of the various degrees; explanations of the various symbols used in Freemasonry which are the tools of a Freemason, to remind him of certain virtues and truths; and even certain rituals such as funeral rites. None of that is secret.

That we we have secrets is also not a secret, and I'd like you to ponder this for a moment. After all, we could avoid the entire issue of public distrust by any number of techniques such as disavowing all secret signs and tokens. But our aim is not duplicity, it's virtue. It's relatively effortless to keep a secret of which no one else is aware. But when others are aware of the existence of that secret, the task is greatly multiplied, for then there is outside pressure to reveal it. Some of that pressure is from the very distrust aimed at Freemasonry. The true measure of a man includes his ability to keep a trust even though the world exhorts him to reveal it, and even though his refusal may turn public opinion against him.

And there is one thing that the non-Mason should know about Masonic secrecy... we are charged to act "upon the square" not just with other Freemasons, but "with all mankind". If a man wears a Masonic ring, his trustworthiness is not confined to the walls of a Masonic lodge, nor to the circle of his fraternity. Should he accept a trust, he will keep it.

It's well known that Freemasonry seeks to instill in its members timeless lessons of morality and virtue. That these virtues should include the proper nature, value, and application of confidentiality should be no surprise.

"No Atheist may be made a Freemason..."

One of the hard and fast rules of Freemasonry as recognized in most of the the world is that no atheist may be made a Freemason, and I've occasionally been asked why this is so. After all, isn't it possible for a good man to be an atheist? And of course the answer is, "yes, it's possible." And isn't it possible for an atheist to act in a moral fashion? And of course the answer is, "yes, it's possible." And isn't it true that, though composed of religious men, Freemasonry is not a religion? And of course the answer is, "yes, it's true."

"Masonry unites men of every country, sect, and opinion,
and conciliates true friendship among those who might
otherwise have remained at a perpetual distance."

So why can't an atheist be a Freemason?

I recently had an exchange that illustrated the reason rather clearly, and it was the atheist himself who provided the means of demonstrating exactly why no atheist may be admitted.

I was reminded in that discussion of a certain challenge that was made by Christopher Hitchens, a rather famous atheist, who posed the following in a debate with his brother Peter:
"Name me a moral action performed or a moral action recommended or a moral statement made by a believer... name me one by a true believer (mumble)...  that could not have been made by a nonbeliever." -- Hitchens vs. Hitchens (YouTube)
The immediate answer is, "Love God".

All those who believe in God immediately understand this. They know in their core that it is true. And they do not perform this act merely because they're told to do so. A person may go through the motions of worship out of fear or pressure, but love is an act of volition. Those of us who are Christians recognize two moral imperatives above all others: one is to "love your neighbor as yourself"; and the other is to "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind." To love God is the highest moral imperative, and yet an atheist cannot recognize or conceive of it as a moral act.

This is a very important point, so I'm going to examine it in a bit more detail. Note that the challenge is to name a moral act that could not have been made by a nonbeliever. To see if we've met it, we have to understand what a moral act is.

At its core, morality is the ability to differentiate that behavior which is Right from that which is Wrong. Philosophers like to say that they don't usually draw a distinction between morality and ethics, but where that distinction is made, morality refers to your "personal compass" of right and wrong, whereas ethics refers to conformity with externally imposed standards of conduct. Now, this distinction is rather sharp, and if we don't make it in the language, then we're going to wind up with a bunch of specific descriptions of what kind of morality we're talking about. So we're going to use the common distinction between ethics and morality simply to save time, as they're what comes of all the haggling over definitions.

Ethics are mechanical. A code of ethics, followed to the letter, always yields ethical behavior. One can be ethical merely by following a set of rules or laws.  Ethics do not require a "moral compass". However, one is moral only of one's own accord. One cannot be coerced into a moral act (at best it becomes ethical instead). And of course, many atheists do many things simply because they're the right thing to do... but we weren't challenged to name any of those. The challenge is to name one they can't.

This challenge is so readily answered because it is was posed by an atheist who could not himself conceive of an answer. He was fond of saying that it had never been answered, although of course it had been, many times. And this is its weakness: in order to accept the answer, an atheist has to recognize the act as moral; but according to the terms of the challenge, it is literally impossible for him to do so.

Hitchens posed a challenge that no atheist is qualified to judge.

The Artful Dodger

Hitchens himself knew that the challenge was weak in this regard. Whenever it was answered, he either failed to recognize it, or changed the terms of the challenge itself. "Moral action" became sometimes "ethical act", or "act of good will". He restated it over and over, in forms such as this:
"I challenge you to find one good or noble thing which cannot be accomplished without religion. It is impossible. You cannot do it."
He kept trying to define it in terms that both atheists and theists would accept, forever forgetting that he himself posed a challenge whose correct answer, by its very definition, he could never accept. These re-formulations merely removed any trace of relevance from this supposed challenge, as what remains has never been in contention.

No one disputes that any human can exhibit good will. But good will is not the whole of morality. Limiting it to just this is merely intended to strip away potential answers that Hitchens could not himself perform. Besides, one can perform an "act" of good will without sincerity, as a gesture, an overture, or an offering with the expectation of quid pro quo. In contrast, when posing the challenge to his brother, Christopher Hitchens specified an act of sincerity... one by a "true believer".

Simply using the word "good" in place of "moral" is just a bit of misdirection. It conflates "Good vs. Evil" with "good and bad". An act that is merely "good" is not necessarily moral. Good acts are so commonplace that they can be performed without volition. Rain and sunshine falling on the plants are good. But is falling rain moral? Hardly. Can an atheist perform good acts? Certainly. Can he perform good acts that are also moral? Certainly. But if those acts numbered in the billions, it would not matter. We are not challenged to name any of those. We are challenged to name one he can't.

Likewise, "nobility" is no good substitute for "morality". A "noble" act could be moral, yes; but it could also be self-destructive; even pathological, as with Cyrano de Bergerac's "grand gesture". And no one doubts that an atheist can perform noble acts. But listing acts that an atheist can perform is not part of the challenge.

By limiting the scope of the challenge to only that which was "acceptable" within bounds that he himself could comprehend, Hitchens removed any true meaning from it. If he were completely honest with himself, the first time someone gave an answer that he himself could not understand, but which nevertheless gained agreement from every believer in the audience, he should rightly have considered it met. Any number of answers would have done it. I merely presented here that which is arguably the most obvious.

The Lesson

It's sometimes said that an atheist has "no moral framework". That's not entirely true. All humans, if they're not sociopaths, have a basic indefinable conception of right and wrong. It's not that the moral framework of an atheist is missing... it's incomplete.

While an atheist may have morality, he cannot have the whole of it. Nor can he even accept the possibility that there may be more to morality than he himself already possesses. This is true of even the most accomplished intellectual atheist philosopher such as Christopher Hitchens, who was completely blind to his own shortcoming.

As we of the craft know, Masonry is "A Beautiful System Of Morality, Veiled In Allegory, Illustrated By Signs And Symbols." Ours is a study of morality, and it occupies in great part that vast expanse of which an atheist cannot conceive, by definition and in practical demonstration, no matter how intelligent or well read he may be. Just as the operative Freemasons of the past required of their apprentices the physical abilities that would enable them to learn and perform their craft, so do the speculative Freemasons of the present require of their apprentices the temperament to do the same.

PostScript: I've received a rather interesting message from someone who takes exception with my assertion that an atheist is not qualified to judge the terms of the challenge, and Hitchens was "blind to his own shortcoming". He avowed that he was certainly "intellectually equipped" to judge the morality of religious arguments and whether to accept or reject them. This assertion is obviously faulty. Perhaps this analogy will help: If you place a bright red object among bright green ones, and a man demonstrates his inability to identify the red one, you might rightly conclude that he's color-blind. If he then vehemently avows that he is nevertheless "intellectually equipped" to discuss the beauty of the colors he can't perceive, that does not make it so. Such a person may become an artist, even a great one, within the limits of his ability, but he will not have the whole of the spectrum. He's still color-blind, and you shouldn't let him pick out your clothes.