Before continuing on, it is essential that a term be defined in as much as it can be defined. That term is the word “religion.” The really sad part of trying to define religion is that virtually everyone’s definition of what “religion” is, fails. Hence, this has to be approached from a strictly Scriptural point of view, with the attendant explanation of why men have not been able to define “religion.” Last of all, for the question that must be addressed concerning Freemasonry and its relationship to religion (whether it is a religion, or merely a very good friend to it) is: Can a religion include different or diverse religions in its particulars and still be a religion in its own right?
In Scripture, the statement is made:
If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. (James 1:26-27)
The rest of the references made to religion in the Scripture only refer to someone’s religion, but describe nothing about what religion is. However, it is indisputable that an integral and primary part of religion is worship, and that that worship has certain confines, or restrictions placed upon it, whether narrow or broad. The Scripture does discuss worship, and even defines it for us. One of the first instances where worship is clearly defined is the instance where Abraham’s servant went to find a wife for Isaac. Upon having his request granted by the LORD God, Abraham’s servant did the following:
And the man bowed down his head, and worshipped the LORD. And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of my master Abraham, who hath not left destitute my master of his mercy and his truth: I being in the way, the LORD led me to the house of my master’s brethren. (Genesis 24:26-27)
Thus, the simple act of prayer is worship, and is a primary element of religion. The second thing we can note about religion is that it self-evidently has a defined set of beliefs, irrespective of whether those beliefs are logical, sensible, reasonable, or even beneficial. The defining aspect of those beliefs relate specifically to the spiritual, its existence, or non-existence, and thus the existence of any spiritual higher power. However broad one may think this definition is, it nonetheless is necessary as one can even make a religion out of such a mundane thing as cutting the grass.
Moreover, religion also has the elements of rite and ritual in some degree. The rites and rituals of a religion may only be a single thing, simplistic in its form, or it may a multitude of things, and very complicated in form. In some instances rites and rituals are used as a means of justification before the higher power(s) of that religion. In others, the rituals and rites are simply a means of illustration of certain truths that the adherents of that religion are to be reinforced in as often as they are performed. The latter was the case throughout the Old Testament as illustrated in the following passage:
Give unto the LORD, ye kindreds of the people, give unto the LORD glory and strength. Give unto the LORD the glory due unto his name: bring an offering, and come before him: worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness. (I Chronicles 16:28-29)
The bringing of an offering before the LORD was a picture of Christ to come, and was a teaching that the LORD God wanted illustrated continually. Failure to do so was indicative that one did not follow the LORD, but was bent upon their own way. In case it is not understood that the sacrifices and offerings were not efficacious for salvation the Scripture does provide the following as proof:
For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins. Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me: In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure.
Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do thy will, O God. Above when he said, Sacrifice and offering and burnt offerings and offering for sin thou wouldest not, neither hadst pleasure therein; which are offered by the law; Then said he, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God. He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second. By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Hebrews 10:1-10)
And from the Old Testament:
Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Put your burnt offerings unto your sacrifices, and eat flesh. For I spake not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices: But this thing commanded I them, saying, Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be my people: and walk ye in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well unto you. (Jeremiah 7:21-23)
Hence, though rituals and rites were a part of the worship in ancient Israel, they were not necessary for salvation. In contrast, in the Catholic Church the ritual of Mass is necessary for the salvation they promise. By this contrast, we can see the varied purpose of rites and rituals and the fact that it is not necessary for a rite or ritual be specifically meant for salvation for it to be an essential part of whatsoever religion that incorporates it. In short, a religion may promise some sort of salvation or justification (and most do), but some of the elements of that religion may not be expressly necessary for the promised salvation to be effected.
So we now see that prayer, a defined set of beliefs (particularly relating to the spiritual), and some rites and/or rituals are all parts of what define a religion. We could say at this point that any system that incorporates these specific elements is a religion. However, for the purposes of this discussion relating to Freemasonry, there is a necessity to answer a final question:
Can a religion incorporate other religions, and still be a religion in its own right?
To say the least it is an interesting question. However, it does have an answer, and that answer is more obvious than most would care to admit. For the answer we must turn to two different systems of belief: Unitarian Universalism, and non-secular Humanism.
I will begin with Unitarian Universalism and its answers to questions that are commonly raised.
Does the UUA have a creed?
No. Although the bylaws of the association do contain a section on purposes and principles, it is not a statement of a religious creed.
Do you subscribe to any doctrines?
We have no specific doctrines to which members are expected to subscribe. However, the bylaws of the UUA (Unitarian Universalist Association) and member churches and societies do contain a Statement of Purpose and Principles (see page 18). These are the basis of a solemn agreement that member churches will support the UUA and that the UUA will support the individual churches.
What do you NOT believe?
We do not believe that any religious precept or doctrine must be accepted as true simply because some religious organization, tradition or authority says it is. Neither do we believe that all UUs should have identical beliefs.
Do some UUs have different beliefs than other UUs?
They certainly do. Since individual freedom of belief is one of our basic principles, it follows that there will be differing beliefs among us. Found in today’s churches are humanism, agnosticism, atheism, theism, liberal Christianity, neo-paganism and earth spiritualism. These beliefs are not mutually exclusive–it’s possible to hold more than one. While we are bound by a set of common principles, we leave it to the individual to decide what particular beliefs lead to those principles.
Do you believe in God?
We do not have a defined doctrine of God. Members are free to develop individual concepts of God that are meaningful to them. They are also free to reject the term and concept altogether.
Most of us do not believe in a supernatural, supreme being who can directly intervene in and alter human life or the mechanism of the natural world. Many believe in a spirit of life or a power within themselves, which some choose to call God.
What are the bonds that unify UUs?
While there are no written or verbal doctrines designed for that purpose, we have both stated and unstated bonds which unify us. The stated bonds are the Principles and Purposes of the UUA which we support individually and collectively.
Among the unstated bonds are our mutual respect for each other and our appreciation of the many religious, philosophical and spiritual paths which our members pursue. We are bound together in our mutual concern for one another’s well being, and our willingness to aid each other in time of need.1
To be continued . . .