How an old pals' act got DIY religion

Roy Porter squares up to the secretive creed that claims to link King Solomon's builder with plumbers and policemen today: Who's Afraid of Freemasons? The phenomenon of Freemasonry by Alexander Piatigorsky
Who's Afraid of Freemasons? The phenomenon of Freemasonry by Alexander Piatigorsky, Harvill Press, pounds 25

Forget the catchy title: the subtitle gives a true guide to this book's agenda. This is not yet another expose of middle-class middle-aged males with their trouser legs rolled up, doing schoolboyish things at rowdy dinners. Nor is it an investigation into the secret cliques of Masons who, rumour has it, clinch insider business deals, pay off the police and receive favours from the bench thanks to a genteel version of the Mafia principle of looking after your own. Rather, this is a serious philosophical inquiry conducted by someone with all the credentials for such an investigation. A self-confessed non-Mason, Piatigorsky is a professor of comparative religion at the University of London, with books on Buddhism and mythology under his belt. His mission is to probe the much mocked but little explained "secrets" of the "craft". All those weird symbols - the compasses and aprons, the squares and gavels - all those rituals of initiation, all those hierarchies of office and uniforms (the brethren of the first, second and third degree): what do they mean?

To grasp what Freemasonry purports to stand for, it is essential, Piatigorsky maintains, to go back to its very roots. For it was then that its enduring rites and rules were established (set in stone, one might say). Freemasonry as we know it emerged around the dawn of the 18th century, a distant descendant of the congregations of practical stone-masons who had flourished since the Middle Ages.

"Speculative" masons - that is, those more genteel brethren who did not actually hew stones - were a mix of nobles and tradesmen who formed lodges for fellowship. As part of the process historians now call "the invention of tradition", they forged for themselves a legendary ancestry which related how an elite of masons had banded together ever since King Solomon had ordained the building of the Temple in Old Testament times. Thereafter, masons had been involved with every great feat of royal or national construction, all the way up to Inigo Jones and Sir Christopher Wren.

Why the symbolic attraction of building, rather than any other trade or livery company, for these gentlemen's clubs? It was partly because of the values associated (ideally, at least) with the building trade. Buildings were symbols of civilisation, strength, solidity, endurance; the builder's art was fair and square, the geometry which formed its foundations also underpinned the hidden harmony of the cosmos. Not least, Freemasons liked to depict the Deity Himself as the Great Architect of the Universe.

From the beginning, rules of conduct were drawn up for the lodges and rites of passage fixed with great precision. Crucial to these were certain mysterious names and terms, and esoteric symbols and gestures, purportedly going back to Hiram, Solomon's builder. This mumbo-jumbo was not intended to spell out a whole way of life, a new morality of right and wrong, a road to salvation, but rather was meant to cement the solidarity of the brotherhood.

It is because rituals have been so central, Piatigorsky argues, that, as movements go, Freemasonry has undergone less change and suffered fewer schisms over the last three centuries than almost any other sect or creed. The secret of Freemasonry lies in being a corpus of ceremonies designed not to save souls or change the world, but to uphold solidarity within.

What this means, Piatigorsky boldly claims, is something Masons themselves generally deny: Freemasonry is a religion - or, at least, a religious phenomenon. And so it was meant to be from the very start - a syncretist faith which would be perfectly compatible with various Christian confessions, with Judaism or other faiths, something which would approximate to a "natural religion", open to all men. This ideal embodied the fervent desire of its codifiers to create a faith which would unite peoples in brotherhood rather than (as with traditional Christianity) slaughtering them in the name of the Church; hence the appeal of Freemasonry to Enlightenment figures such as Mozart.

Interpreting musty Masonic documents and interviewing prominent Masons, Piatigorsky affords rich insight into a body of practices which has continued to grow in appeal (it is said there are 700,000 Freemasons in Britain, 3.5 million in the USA) despite a general decline of religious faith and secularisation at large. Maybe this success stems from meeting a thirst for ritual which liberalising faiths such as Anglicanism no longer satisfy. That would also explain the abiding hostility of Roman Catholicism towards the craft.

Piatigorsky raises more questions than he answers. Why, one would like to know, given Freemasonry's sincere commitment to a "universalism" transcending creed, colour and nationality, has the movement been so bigoted in its exclusion of women?

That misogyny is particularly interesting in the light of a brief episode of Masonic history which Piatigorsky never addresses: the early lodges of the Netherlands, which did occasionally admit women. Then, can we really accept his view that Freemasonry has typically been "apolitical"? On his own admission, Continental Freemasonry in the 18th century was openly antagonistic to the old regime; more recently in Britain, lodges have sometimes looked like the Tory Party at supper.

Above all, one would have liked his judgement as to how much of the esoteric creed laid bare here is actually known to, let alone believed in by, your average plumber, publican or policeman Mason in Manchester or Milwaukee. But for making the secrets of the craft less sinister, if no less bizarre, Professor Piatigorsky deserves our handshake.