Freemasonry and Secularism

by Jean-Philippe Hubsch

Grand Master of the Grand Orient of France


Secularism is a set of legal principles based on the primacy of freedom of conscience. It is neither a weapon against religions nor a civil religion. The universality of the common law must not refer to any of the various religions in order to impose itself on all citizens. A Masonic lodge is a place of acceptance of difference, of pacification of exchanges. This is why Freemasonry considers that secularism is a universal principle of social pacification.

The opportunity given to us here to question the links between Freemasonry and secularism is particularly welcome. An emblematic principle of the French republican tradition, sacralized by the Third Republic and considered “intangible” until 1940, secularism is today the site of a profound oblivion and, at the very moment when it is dangerously called into question by “fanaticism” and intolerance, Whether cultural, political, economic, religious or racial, it is no longer properly defended and the worst confusion reigns around the notion… Secularism is sometimes confiscated for the benefit of an identity project and used as a weapon against Islam. Sometimes, and on the contrary, it is reduced to a simple principle of tolerance in the service of a multiculturalist project of organizing identity assignments. It is also sometimes presented as a kind of civil religion – that of those who have no religion – when it is not seen as a simple war machine against religious convictions and feelings ! Each in its own way, all these speeches constitute as many denaturations of republican secularism. It is true that in our country Freemasonry is willingly associated with secularism. With its vigilant stance to every supposed threat, we would even see it – without playing on words – as “guardian of the temple”!…

The inspiration of the lodges From its very first steps, modern Freemasonry develops a universalist thought. Anderson’s Constitutions – its founding text – announced that it intended to become the “Centre of the Union, [allowing] sincere friendship between people who might have remained at a perpetual distance”, whether for political, religious or national reasons. The Lodge that works at this “Centre of the Union” is a community that implements an “elective fraternity” in search of social, political and religious pluralism. It can exist and last only because it is welded together by rigorous and effective rituals. The Masonic lodge at work is also a method, a discipline that counters all spontaneity and opposes all natural inclinations, to achieve a change of mental framework to ensure the overcoming of interpersonal exchanges for the benefit of the unity of the lodge. It is a traditional counter-culture in which the Freemasons, protected by the secrecy of their exchanges, become as many heterodox “smugglers”. What this counter-culture proposes is first of all the work on oneself – the Freemasons speak of their “inner temple” – which allows one to find one’s inner unity, to be reconciled with oneself, the first condition to be able to really open oneself to others whom they have learned to look at as brothers and, in doing so, to work for the betterment of humanity – in the “temple of humanity” -. This counter-culture is affirmed as a spiritual continuity, an awareness of universal solidarity. It is the place of a certain equality, a mark of tolerance and openness. In the Lodge, accepting the other’s difference, welcoming his word and respecting it is, for every Freemason, an absolute requirement. But the taking into account of this otherness is done within the framework of common references that cannot be transgressed. With its traditional tools for the progressive pacification of exchanges, Freemasonry is thus a kind of laboratory of society, a laboratory of the social bond that naturally gives rise to the principle of secularism. Although closely supervised, Masonic lodges were, in the very closed political society of the French 19th century, the only active associations tolerated and therefore, quite naturally, the underground hearths of the country’s intellectual and political life. That is why, as soon as Sedan surrendered, the Republic will emerge armed with lodges. Léon Gambetta, and all the Jules, Simon, Grévy, Favre and especially Ferry, to mention only these eminent personalities of the first generation of the Republic, all came directly from the lodges. The republican construction of secularism The Republic aims at a permanent construction of the civic link beyond the identity assignments of each one, in the search and preservation of what is common to all. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, Freemasonry will truly be part of the political struggles for the construction of the secularism of the State and the conceptions it will defend will not be different from those that the Republic will try to implement. Secularism is a set of legal principles based on the primacy of freedom of conscience. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 26 August 1789 holds religion to be an “opinion” like any other (article 10), which is therefore exclusively a matter of individual freedom. This necessarily implies the equality of all these spiritual options in the eyes of the law and therefore the equality of all citizens regardless of their opinions or religion. The universality of the common law, which must not refer to any of the various religions in order to impose itself on all citizens, is indispensable. Secularism thus becomes a principle of social organization. The public authorities and the sphere associated with them, with a view to constituting, establishing and guaranteeing the rights and freedoms from which the universality of citizens will benefit, must maintain an absolute reserve with regard to spiritual options.

The private sphere is that of individuals and communities, free in accordance with the law. Every citizen must be able to exercise these individual and private freedoms of conscience, opinion – religious or otherwise – and expression, outside the private home, in the civil space open to all, in accordance with common law and public order. The State is at the same time the guarantor of the independence of these two spheres and of the unity of the political community of citizens around shared common values. In a secular society, the recognition of the right of each person to build and express his or her difference is thus always conceived in a space of relationship, confrontation and dialogue with others. This behaviour obviously represents an ideal that is difficult to build and to achieve, which has produced in our country a way of life that is the object of a lasting consensus. No one has to be aware of the philosophical or religious choices of others, they belong to them. No one has to know them, especially not the State, which, among other things, refrains from identifying them. Here again, religion is understood as an individual choice, an opinion – which can be changed – and not as belonging. Public worship, which is legitimate, is practised in the places normally reserved for it, and this has led in our country to the gradual emergence of a shared culture of discretionary religious expression in civil society. This is the very essence of the French historical and legal tradition, which sees this shared discretion as the best way to ensure that everyone can live together in a serene and peaceful coexistence based on respect for different thoughts. Fundamentally, if French secularism respects all spiritual options, it is first and foremost in so far as they are expressions of citizens’ freedom of conscience. Thus, the Republic will no doubt be concerned less expressly with the individual whose membership of a community is acquired than with the atheist, the agnostic or the dualistic indivisible believer at odds with his or her group, because they are alone and their freedom needs the protection of the State, which must be able to protect the right to believe and the right to blaspheme equally. The challenges of the present Republican construction is well defined by its universalist character, of which secularism is an essential tool. However, today we are witnessing a resurgence of manifestations of identity affirmation inspired by religion but which go far beyond questions of worship, in open challenge to secularism and republican principles. And we also observe that freedom of conscience and the equality of all are receding and are no longer guaranteed in certain private spaces. At the very moment when it appears that our constitutional secularism should probably be able to be exercised, beyond public services, in the protection of the social space, “a place of sharing under the gaze of others”, in the face of pressing demands for religious expression, we see that secularism has lost much of the symbolic force that it once had. The republican state has a duty to get involved in the defence of universalist projects in the face of the communitarian attacks of certain pressure groups. As the Lodges know how to do, the Republic must strive to create the common, the public. It must know how to fight against discrimination on the basis of equality, highlighting what is common to individuals and social groups, and not through identity recognition, a recognition that will close like a trap on the citizen and his rights. A neutral state, which is only sensitive to the freedom of the individual citizen, is a modern model and a bearer of progress for the future. Its fundamental instrument is secularism, which alone remains capable of fecundating a universalist thought of diversity, freed from the culturalist vulgate that is currently spreading unrestrainedly in political debate and the media. It will then appear as a universal principle of social pacification.

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