Friday, August 15, 2008

Do you believe?

I started reading Robert Lomas's book Turning the Hiram Key last week. This book is Lomas's attempt to chronicle his personal journey into Freemasonry as he delves into how the rituals of the Craft have affected him.

Lomas begins the story of his journey with his first exposure to Freemasonry and his subsequent desire to join the fraternity. When he gets to the point of talking about submitting his petition to join the Lodge, he recounts this verbal exchange with the man to whom he was about to hand his letter of application:

"Before you can hand that in, I need to talk to you about an important question. You'll have to come for an interview and answer it before we'll decide if you'll be allowed to join."

"What's that?"

"When you come for interview you'll be asked if you believe in a supreme being."

"Do you mean do I belong to a church?"

"No, that's not necessary," he said. "But you must accept that there is such a thing as a supreme being."

"Can I think about my answer?"
Those who are totally ignorant about Freemasonry may not realize that one of the central tenets is belief in God. But much to the dismay of fundamentalist Christians here in the US, Freemasonry doesn't care which God. Therefore, membership is open to all men who profess a belief in God, be it the Triune God of Christianity, the God of the Torah for Jews, Allah for the Muslims, or virtually any other deity of a recognized religion. Therefore, a little alarm bell sounded in the back of my mind when I read Lomas's response to the first question that is asked of anyone seeking to join Freemasonry: Do you believe in God?

"Can I think about my answer?"

What's there to think about? Either you do or you don't. But not for Robert Lomas. I'll let him explain:
By trade I am a scientist, and I found this question difficult to answer. It is ambiguous--with hindsight, I suspect deliberately so. I ended up doing considerable research before deciding how to answer, and I began by looking at the meanings of the words used. ...

Often the term "supreme being" is taken as a synonym for God. But the dictionary possibilities are wider. You could legitimately join [Freemasonry] if you believe in a deity who, though limited in power, is made of a rich cream sauce; this hypothetical supreme being might be called "the custard god." ... But a custard god is too weird for a scientist to accept, and anyway my wife keeps me on a diet. But, luckily, "supreme being" can also mean the greatest nature or essence of existence that can be imagined; to me this is the "Laws of Physics."

I actually had to put the book down after I read that paragraph. The little alarm bell was now a resounding gong as I realized what sort of prevarication this man was willing to go to in order to become a Mason:
If I wanted to become a Freemason the first peculiar question I had to face up to was, did I believe that there was an order underlying the behavior of the universe?
Do you see what Lomas has done? In order to be able to answer the question in the affirmative, he had to redefine the term "supreme being." Again, I'll let Lomas's words explain:

Thinking my position through, I had no doubt. I could answer a truthful "yes" to the admission question. And I did not have to compromise my scientific beliefs. This, then is my definition of "supreme being"--my scientist's creed if you like:

I believe in a number of immutable laws that apply throughout the whole of creation. These relate to the way matter behaves and are often called the Laws of Physics. They include such well-known relationships as the conservation of energy and mass and their interchangeability, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, Fermi-Dirac statistics and the laws of thermodynamics. I believe that matter is made up of twelve fundamental particles, six quarks and six leptons. There are four forces, strong, weak, electromagnetic and gravitational. I also believe that forces are mediated by the exchange of particles. I accept the existence of twelve force-carrying particles and think there might also be a thirteenth, the graviton, but I'm not sure about that.
Can any man, if he is being honest with himself, actually think that by requiring a belief in a Supreme Being, Freemasonry expects or accepts a deity you made up yourself ("the custard god"), or the abstract and impersonal "Laws of Physics"? When the Lodge is opened with prayer to the Great Architect of the Universe, can any man in good conscience believe that he is seeking the blessings and wisdom of the Laws of Physics? When faced with the trials and tribulations that life throws at us, how much comfort do prayers to the Laws of Physics bring to a troubled and weary traveler?

These questions may seem facetious, but I assure you they are not. They reveal the heart of the matter at issue when a prospective candidate is asked "Do you believe in a Supreme Being?" If you allow the person being asked to create his own god so that he may answer in the affirmative, the answer becomes meaningless and an exercise in sophistry. Would Mr. Lomas find it acceptable if he asked me if I believed in the Laws of Physics, if I answered "Yes, so long as I can make up my own Laws of Physics"? I doubt it.


Peter Clatworthy said...

"Without evasion, equivocation or mental reservation of any kind."

May I refer you to the following article on our blogspot?

"Oaths, Oath Taking, and Mental Reservation" by Richard Martin Young/

funkyt said...

I would disagree with you on this point.

"virtually any other deity of a recognized religion."

There is no requirement that your "supreme being" be "recognized". I've always thought this question/requirement was purposely vague and possibly installed for political purposes, in light of the history of the Craft. It is only my opinion, but it seems Pike's own view of Deity was fairly nebulous and encompassing. Excellent blog, BTW.

funkyt said...

One more point, I did not mean to imply one could ignore or violate this part of the obligation based on the cause of it's inclusion.