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 chall￼enge, 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.
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.