Thursday, May 23, 2013

Secrecy: What's the Big Deal?

One of the biggest criticisms I see held against Freemasonry is that we are a "secret society" and that devious and sinister plots have conspired in our meetings. The Fraternities response is that we are rather a private organization with secrets. I would agree with the Masonic response as true secret societies are ones that don't disclose membership, allow members to wear insignia, hold public ceremonies, or, particularly in America, display their meeting places so prominently. Their primary argument is that secrecy is naturally wrong and that nothing good can come from meeting in secret. Aside from the illogical assumption, this anti-secrecy belief overlooks the relationship of secrecy and human nature as well as the need for secrecy in a free society.

Before I continue any further I would like to focus first on the word "secret". The word "secret" comes from the Latin secretus which means to set apart or hide. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a secret society is "any of various oath-bound societies often devoted to brotherhood, moral discipline, and mutual assistance." This is a fair description of Freemasonry, although I still disagree that we [Freemasonry] are a secret society -- maybe it's my bias. I do agree that Freemasonry is a private organization that possesses secrets. It is important to note that privacy is synonymous with secrecy. Privacy is the "quality or state of being apart from company and observation." Privacy is a natural right as everyone has a right to hide or conceal that which they possess or own whether it is a person, place, thing, belief or idea.

As anti-Masons are as diverse as the fraternity is, they denounce secrecy and secrets for a variety of reasons; most simply believe that keeping secrets and secrecy is wrong as it is indicative of plotting against benevolent governments and religious organizations. Even when faced with the proposition that secrecy is the same thing as privacy, many still denounce it often for irrational reasons. Regardless, whether one calls it secrecy or privacy, everyone has a need for it and that is the main focus of this article. Understandably, our secrecy is what feeds their argument as without information they are left with only their imagination and rumors to guide them as to what occurs within the walls of Masonic bodies. Even when faced with the facts they will still stand by the fact that they don't like our private nature.

Now it is laughable to think Freemasonry is truly secret as one only needs to go to a library or get onto the internet to find a vast amount of information regarding our Fraternity, although more often than not some websites information is and was exaggerated and sensationalized. Even many of our own writings are published publicly and open for non-Masons to read. If so much is published why do we keep them private? There are many reasons why we Freemasons continue our private nature and the keeping of secrets. Freemasonry was traditionally extremely private during eras of totalitarianism out of obvious necessity as free-thinking and liberal ideas were seen as dangerous, condemned by tyrants, and forced from public view. 

Overlooking the traditional need for secrecy anti-Masons often state, "If you have nothing to hide, why keep it secret?" This is indicative of a nosy personality and one counter to liberty. Many seek to know what a Mason knows without the effort, without going through the process and earning the information which devalues the information, and would mean nothing to the unworthy and uninitiated. 

In his article "Why Secrecy", Bro. Roger Firestone 33° stated:
Another major reason why secrecy is advocated for the knowledge imparted by Freemasonry is to impart the lesson that our teachings are valuable. We leave many inexpensive items lying carelessly about our homes and offices, whereas truly valuable items are kept locked in safe deposit boxes or other repositories, or are carried with us at all times. In Poe's story, "The Purloined Letter," many hiding places are searched for the letter; having been left in plain view, it is overlooked as worthless. Since knowledge, per se, cannot be locked up physically, keeping it secret is the method used to restrict its circulation and ownership. If the teachings of Freemasonry were made available to anyone as a matter of routine, it would indicate to both members and outsiders that we attach only a modest value to them. Instead, we have spent centuries of effort keeping the truths of Masonry secret and passing them down the generations by memory. This should convince us that what we have labored so hard to possess is valuable indeed.
Bro. Firestone goes on to talk about the psychology of secrecy and secret societies. With further research, I find several journal articles on this very subject covering the rise of "secret societies", secrecy and relationships, and how secrecy builds trust.

As history shows, when the world is out of balance the solution will arise in the needed form. In his article called The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies, Georg Simmel states:

As a general proposition, the secret society emerges everywhere as correlate of despotism and of police control. It acts as protection alike of defense and of offense against the violent pressure of central powers. This is true, not alone in political relations, but in the same way within the church, the school, and the family.
Within any private and voluntary organization, secrecy or privacy is necessary and compatible with trust. Because of the shared experience of members and because they share protected information an organization builds allegiances and meaningful relationships. According to Gary Fine and Lori Holyfield, "The link between trust and secrecy supports group cohesion while leaving room for personal investments." Private organizations rely upon trust to keep private or secret that which has been entrusted to their care. The relationship between privacy and secrecy extends to personal relationships as well as for fraternal ones. Simmel states, "Every relationship between two individuals or two groups will be characterized by the ratio of secrecy that is involved in it." W:.Bro. Cliff Porter in his 2007 article Secrecy and Faith discusses how secrecy breeds trust and courage. Cliff makes the following declaration:
There are many reasons we may love our spouses, but believing we can share anything with them is an important aspect to a healthy relationship. The idea that your closest companion will not share your private moments with anyone else is what allows you to trust them. The idea that we can trust them gives of the courage to share with them. This is the basis of the secrecy of Masonry.
He continues by discussing that in today's modern world Freemasonry is one avenue that still prizes the need for and protection of secrecy and secrets. He also makes the point that in secrecy men may learn as they forget that "listening is often an unintended consequence of maintaining the secrecy and, low and behold, we even learn something here and there." It is also pointed out those who attack secrecy do so for devious and sinister purposes themselves. In the conversations I have with those opposing secrecy I often find beliefs that are contradictory to freedom and human nature. Often those who oppose secrecy are nosy and this often leads to such an obsessive, close-minded personality. In the Paradox of Secrecy, Beryl Bellman states:
The obsessive fear of secrets leads to the denial of the right of secrecy and a rise in the demand for publicity. Concomitantly, distrust of privacy is accompanied by obsession with secrecy. Likewise, an open attitude toward privacy leads to a lessening of concern with secrecy.
While some denounce secrecy on moral grounds, Simmel states that secrecy is a universal sociological form and has nothing to do with moral valuations. Those who believe that secrecy is naturally wrong and use the "nothing-to-hide" argument do so based on assumptions, not fact. They presume that secrets are kept only to hide something wrong, but often privacy and secrecy enhance freedom and liberty since living in a police state, in a state of forced "transparency", inhibits the exercise of natural rights like freedom of speech, association/assembly, and all of those essential to a free society.

Others argue that secrecy is against their faith and religious doctrine, and in the case of those who are Christian, they often overlook Holy Scripture that states there is nothing wrong with secrecy or privacy. Many also seem to forget that since secrecy is universal that everyone keeps secrets and practices secrecy at some level. Those who would deny their own personal secrecy couldn't withstand much questioning concerning intimate aspects of their lives without, as David Flaherty says, "capitulating to the intrusiveness of certain subject matters." They also forget that a key element of a free government, like a Republican or Democratic one, is secrecy.

In my opinion, it is not about Freemasonry having anything to hide, but rather it has everything to do with the sense of entitlement some feel to know the business of others...and frankly, they don't have that right. Entitlement is the belief that one deserves something without putting labor or effort into properly receiving it which is the antithesis to the natural rights that protect secrecy and privacy. As free men we are endowed with the right to keep what is our personal, confidential, private, and secret; and as free men, we do not need to justify the exercise of our Natural Rights.

To the rational mind, they will see that secrecy is the guardian of freedom and liberty, something learned at an early age and is universally used by all human beings. Secrecy is not just some simple notion about concealing information from others, but is an exercise in guarding our thoughts, words, and actions. Secrecy breeds trust and courage and reminds us of the lessons of the Four Cardinal Virtues: Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence, and Justice.


1. Beidelman, T. O. Secrecy and society: the paradox of knowing and the knowing of paradox. 1993.;view=fulltext. 

2. Bellman, Beryl L. "The Paradox of Secrecy." Human Studies (Springer) 4, no. 1 (March 1981): 1-24. 

3. Dunn, Theron. Why Do We Keep Secrets? September 18, 2007. 

4. Firestone, Roger M. "Why Secrecy?" The Working Tools magazine, August 2006: 30-33. 

5. Holyfield, Lori, and Gary A. Fine. "Secrecy, Trust, and Dangerous Leisure: Generating Group Cohesion in Voluntary Organizations." Social Psychology Quarterly 59, no. 1 (March 1996): 22-38.

6. Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

7. Porter, Cliff. Secrecy and Faith. November 24, 2007. 

8. Sigler, Cory. "What in the world does the world think we’re hiding?" The Working Tools magazine, August 2006: 29.

9. Simmel, Georg. "The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies." American Journal of Sociology (The University of Chicago Press) 11, no. 4 (January 1906): 441-498.

10. Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have 'Nothing to Hide'. May 15, 2011.

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