Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Future of Freemasonry: What's Karma, Science, and Evolution Got to Do With It?
by Mark Stavish, M.A.

Presented to the Pennsylvania Academy of Masonic Knowledge, March 15, 2014, at the Masonic Conference Center, Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. The following text is a redaction of the original and will contain slight variations from the oral presentation.

The future of Freemasonry is a topic that we as Masons simply seek to avoid discussing at all costs. It is like the drunken uncle at Christmas. We ignore him, laugh, make excuses, but actually getting up the collective courage to force an intervention to get him into treatment and to address the family dynamics is beyond our comfort zone. Like any rational human being we enjoy avoiding the painful truths that sit before us until they can no longer be avoided.  

Well, Brethren, that time has arrived. However, I am simply the messenger. So please do not kill the messenger.  It is too easy to get upset about this, but if we do, we will not solve the problems before us.  When I speak of the future I am not speaking of a future with out Freemasonry, no that would be too easy and too wrong. Nor am I speaking of the pipe dreams many have of Freemasonry returning to what they see as its glory days of massive memberships – slightly over 4 million members in the United States in 1959 and a height of just shy of 258,000 in Pennsylvania alone. 

No, what I am talking about is a future in which Freemasonry is smaller, more expensive, and more focused on the Masonic experience of its individual members. 

Current Membership Statistics
In 2011 national statistics have us at 1.5 million, and since those are two or three years old, we can assume that the numbers are actually smaller.  Year end 2012 statistics place membership in Pennsylvania at just below 109,000. It is safe to assume that this is down to around 106,000 for 2013, as we loose about 3,000 members per year on average.  Remember that number because we will come back to it. 

Nor is the problem limited to Pennsylvania, although that is my primary concern. An article in the June 2013 issue of a publication some of you may know, The Rocky Mountain Mason (Vol. 1, Issue 2) stated that by 2023, statistically speaking, there will be no Freemasons in Colorado – less than ten years from now. Now, is that true? Theoretically. In reality what will happen is that if Masonry in Colorado continues on that path it will simple dissolve, disintegrate, it will collapse, until the only thing remaining is the Grand Lodge and maybe one or two other lodges. It will be cash rich, membership poor, and resemble the Odd Fellows. The same is true for other jurisdictions in similar situations. Colorado has, I am told, leveled out in its membership at around 9,000 members (9,320 in 2011), down from 30,515 in 1985 with again, an average membership age of 65 in many lodges.  So, we still need to see how things go over the next five to seven years.

Now the good news is misery loves company and Masonry is not alone – participation in organizations is down considerably from their all time high in the early1960s. Particularly religious and fraternal organizations, and those which are real estate intensive.  Reasons for this are several and they will be addressed in relation to Masonry in this presentation.  For those of you who wish more information on this topic I encourage you to read, Bowling Alone – The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam  and  the sequel, Better Together – Restoring American Community, also by Robert Putnam. 

Now, when we think of Freemasonry each of us has a different idea of that that is, that is, what is Freemasonry? 

We are told that Masonry is a charitable institution, and while that is true, that we give up to $2 million a day in charity, but it is not the whole story as much of that comes from old money well invested rather than new funds being added to the existing accounts.

We are often told that Masonry makes good men better, but are not really told how.  I've asked members, officers in purple – Past Masters and District Deputy Grand Masters -  this question, “How do we make good men better?” In return I get blank stares.  When asked, “What  is Masonic philosophy?” I am told, it is in the ritual. OK, but where, and what does it mean?  Again blank stares and feet shuffling.

We are told that Masonry is a fraternity. While that is true where are the Brethren? 

The fact is, Masonry for the most part has become an institution that rides on its glory days and is irrelevant to modern life.  Let me say that again. Modern Freemasonry is irrelevant. If it folded up and disappeared who would miss it?  Certainly not the 95% of our members who never attend lodge?  Nor the municipalities where our institutions exist but do not pay taxes.  Your wives would be glad to have some of you home more often – there is always something to add to the honey do list. So, who would really miss us if we all just went away?  Few indeed.   

Now that is part of the reality we have to accept if we are to move forward.

The good news is, it doesn't have to stay that way. Masonry can become a very relevant force for the individual and the community once again, but only if it looks at itself honestly.

Now I chose the topics Karma, Science and Evolution because they are the basis of all enlightened though, and Freemasonry being an institution of the enlightenment era means that we as Freemasons should understand these ideas the best.

Karma is cause and effect:  to elaborate on this let me quote Brother Swami Vivekananda.  

Vivekananda, recognized as a genius as a child, educated in the British colonial school system,  is a hero of modern India, and the foremost disciple of Shri Ramakrisha.

“We are responsible for what we are, and whatever we wish ourselves to be, we have the power to make ourselves. If what we are now has been the result of our own past actions, it certainly follows that whatever we wish to be in the future can be produced by our present actions; so we have to know how to act.” -  Swami Vivekananda

In addition, 

“Shri Ramakrishna use to say, "As Long as I Live, so long do I learn". That man or that society which has nothing to learn is already in the jaws of death.”  This is as good a definition of evolution as any.

You see, these two quotes go together because Karma is cause and effect, it comes from the Sanskrit word for Work, the Great Work in fact, of human spiritual unfoldment, but can be applied to any action, or as several Tibetan Lamas have said to me, “You plant apples, you get apples, but not pears.”  Or as the Scriptures before say, “By their fruits ye shall know them.”

So then, we as masons must look around at the fruits of our lives, our lodges, our districts, and our jurisdictions.  What seeds have we planted?  What have we harvested for all our efforts?

When I recently addressed a lodge on the Chamber of Reflection, a lodge that was glad there were enough members out to fill the chairs, and enough visitors and visiting District Deputy Grand Master to half fill the seats, I took the Master and members to task for a very destructive habit they demonstrated no less than five times I was there. A habit all of you have been repeatedly exposed to.  

“Hurry up and get you guys out of here”.

If it is not worth staying for, it is not worth going to.  What is the message you have just given these three or four new young men – all in their 20s?  

I go to a meeting, sit for an hour or more, and then as the speaker, am expected to hurry up and get done – I am internationally known. I am published in nine languages, and you want me to hurry up. This is rude and insulting. I tire of it.  I take time away from my life, my family, my clients, and you want it over in fifteen minutes to get to sandwiches and half melted ice cream.  Now, the Chamber of Reflection asks you one question and it is the only question Freemasonry asks you as well? Why are you here?

You see brethren, we can't answer that question.  Most of our members do not know why they are Masons, or why they should attend lodge.  What's the meaning? What's the purpose? 

Science is from the Latin for wisdom, and we define science as a means of observing and classifying knowledge. But the scientific method is something else: it requires that what we observe and classify be repeatable by others under the same conditions.  Thus, it snows at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.  The causes and conditions have to be right for it to snow, just as the causes and conditions have to be right for most me to be able to exercise their full potential and come to realization of their divine nature as men. In past times, Masonic lodges were vehicles for providing those causes and conditions for human unfoldment and illumination so that back in the world the lessons of Masonic Philosophy of brotherly love and affection could be applied.

So then, what is evolution?  It is simple: it is survival. But there is a catch.

Evolution is not simply 'survival of the fittest' but the fittest at what?  The answer is ADAPTATION TO ONE'S ENVIRONMENT. Also, it is individual organisms that adapt and not groups.  Now, some groups can adapt, but it is not all of them – some live, some die, and those that adapt give rise to the next generation or organisms and the cycle continues.  

This is critical, because in this light, Freemasonry is the group and the lodges are the individuals. Members can attempt to act as catalysts for change, such as myself right now, but whether or not a single member or entire lodge responds is entirely up to them.  

And this brings us to an important excuse for Masonry's current predicament, I have heard repeatedly and it is called Blaming the victim.  

Now – if I invite you to join, it is my responsibility to have something to offer you. The only reason to join, is to get something uniquely Masonic – a masonic education.  I do not need to be a mason to be charitable, or for fraternity.  Nor do I even need to be a mason to get a masonic education – YouTube offers me that.  I need to join Masonry so I can have all three together, in a single place, in a single experience.  

Young men will sit through our God awful boring meetings of reading of the minutes, correspondence, treasurers' report, sales pitches for new new members, and embarrassingly sophomoric customs such as the Traveling Gavel and the Rusty Nail Degree – IF, and only IF, you can give them 30 minutes of a good, informative program on a Masonic topic, and a decent collation and discussion about the topic afterward, ONCE A MONTH.  If you can't do that, then don't blame them for not returning.  Don't blame customer because the cook made bad soup -and that is what we tell ourselves, ah the soup is bland, but that's OK, its the members fault for not wanting to waste his life eating bland soup.  We have to spice it up. That is all there is too it.  But even once it is done, it must be continued year after year. Not done once and dropped. 

When a close friend of mine was Master of his massive lodge, he had three internationally known speakers during his term in office, and organized a bus trip to the Grand Lodge and the University of Pennsylvania Egyptian exhibit.  There was John Anthony West, Bro. John Michael Greer, and myself. He was met with resistance and complaints that is was not like programs of previous years.  When I presented there again recently out of 900 members, 22 show up – at another lodge, out of 150 members (I am told one-third who live out of state) only the officers were present. I was the only one sitting on the sides. Do the math, we are irrelevant to 95% of our members.

So there you have it. One year of great programs, and then back to business as usual, and the young men who had an interest in something 'other' are gone.  Changing the culture of an organization takes time, and that means consistency in the new activities.

You see, what most people miss is that while we loose 3,000 members a year, only ½ to 1/3 are from death. Now we cannot stop members from dying, but we can stop boring them to death. One-third to two-thirds of membership losses are to Suspension for non-payment of dues. They simple don't care and stop paying. They don't even bother to resign.  

Any why should they? I have never met a member that was encouraged to join Freemasonry because of their love of learning, the Seven Liberal Arts and Science, spirituality or esotericism in particular. But I have met many who have been turned away because of it.  We need to pay real close attention to that point.  

We need to stop being boring in the only part of the meeting we have any control over and that is the educational component.  

The Future – What Will We Look Like in 20 Years?

The future is always against a backdrop, and that backdrop changes from location to location, what applies where I am at may not apply to you, but some general characteristics will.

Wyoming Valley in general and my lodge's community in particular.
We have ten lodges, down two from 2012, and I expect us to be at four lodges within ten years.  These will be geographically locates at the corners and population density centers of the county. The lodge I am a non-attending member of started with 216 members when I joined and is around 165 currently.  All activities are aimed at keeping the building going.  This is common and needs to be stopped by forced mergers, consolidation of resources, and renting of meeting space.  The irrational attachment members have to their individual Masonic Halls, is destructive to the health and well being of the membership in general.  The Hall is NOT the Lodge.  The Lodge is chartered, the building can be sold.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
At a continued decline of 3,000 members per year, and preparing for one to three years of catastrophic die-off in excess of that of older members, I predict this jurisdiction will be at 70,000-75,000 members in ten years – that is, 2024.  Knights Templar will be hardest hit if it does not increase its membership and decrease the median age, which is at 72 or 75 depending on who you ask. This means, Knights Templar can effectively be wiped out as a functioning body in a period of one to three years.

I expect us to have 1/3 less lodges in ten years than we do now, and if I had my way, we would have 1/3 less today through forced merger and consolidation.  I would also strongly discourage older lodges from purchasing property and instead renting off another lodge, or public space such as a hotel. Remember, we used to meet above taverns.  Resource management is going to be even more critical than it was before.  

In fifteen years, if the decline continues, we will be at 60,000 members, and 40,000-45,000 in twenty years.  Somewhere in that time frame we will have a cascading collapse of lodges with membership die off and consolidation out of necessity rather than foresight and intelligent planning.  I predict that in twenty years, we will have ½, (possibly even 1/3 worst case) of the lodges we have at the current moment.

The United States of America
This is difficult to predict other than more of the same. Each jurisdiction is different in where they are along this arch, but again, it all depends on what the leadership and membership decide to do about it.  When compared to increases in the US population, which has more than doubled since Masonry's all time high, our numbers have continued to go in the opposite direction, now that is an important fact. In fact world population was doubled in the last 38 years. Which brings us to our next point.

The World – 7 billion and counting, 8 billion by 2024
Worldwide Masonry is difficult to put a finger on as it is so diverse.  However, what we do know is that world population is increasing, in fact, the unspoken white elephant in the room when discussion social institutions and participation is that the backdrop against which everything we are doing is taking place is this: the end of cheap energy and with it, the end of modern industrial life as we know it.  This is most easily understood by facing the fact that we live in a world that is experiencing unlimited population growth worldwide and decreasing natural resources worldwide.  We keep living like you can get infinite resources from a finite planet.  You cannot.  These two factors are the recipe for a national, cultural, human, and spiritual disaster never before seen on this planet.  For this reason, Freemasonry must once again become a relevant cultural, moral, and spiritual force, yes, spiritual force, in a world which approaches the brink of disaster with each passing day.  We must once again show that we can help people solve their problems, solve problems within their communities, and make the world a better place – the work of the Temple – and in a manner that makes men want to come to and participate in lodge.

What To Do About It?
Why do we loose so many to suspension and resignation? Or, How do we become relevant in the lives of our newest, youngest, and most enthusiastic members? The Masons of the present and the future?  

Stop discouraging them by boring them to death.

Here is a typical email of which I get two a month from Brethren I have never met.

Dear Mr. Stavish, 
Your book on Freemasonry is what inspired me to finally join my local Lodge...I must say your writings on the subject were greatly inspiring to me. It has been three years since I read the book, but as I recall, it was your emphasis on the benefits of the moral education provided by Masonry that inspired me to knock on the door. I am now Senior Deacon of my Lodge,...I count myself among that younger generation of Masons who seeks the deeper side of the Fraternity.
…A Mason with the same story as so many others: in a small town, one that is shrinking, one in which the older generation is ill-equipped to provide the meaning and depth that the younger generation seeks. One in which there are more Brothers leaving the Fraternity in coffins than are approaching the Pillars.
We have a great Lodge. The ritual monitor and all of the other material that has been written on various aspects of the Fraternity provide a passive source of (teaching) for those with the drive to learn. What we lack are teachers and students. But as you know, the Fraternity itself has in large measure turned its back on its spiritual heritage, the Hermetic Tradition to which, in my opinion, Speculative Masonry owes its existence. 
At a recent presentation by a Grand Lodge officer on Eliphas Levi – a talk which came highly recommended and where many of my Brothers regard the information presented there as top-notch - I found myself surrounded by a room full of people who did not know enough to even be embarrassed.  I felt as though I were surrounded by living examples of the withering apostasy Masonry insists for itself. “This,” I thought, “is Masonry killing itself by degrees.” I have been a Mason for three years now and frankly I am discouraged. I feel like I am at a fork in the road here: I will either move to the East in 2017, or 2014 will be my last year as an active Mason. We have the space, we have the teachings, we can make the time, but students are few and teachers…well, I don’t see them, and I have four children to raise. Once again, I am on my own with this. 
I have discovered, through this process, that what I am in the Fraternity for is to make more Masons. But there are few, and there are going to be few. I strongly feel that a Hermetic revival within Freemasonry would do much to restore its vitality. But this is just not going to happen. Not where I am at least. My brothers would not have it. Too much mumbo-jumbo. I am grateful to have had the opportunity, but I often feel Masonry is not long for this world. Sometimes it breaks my heart, but other times I confess that I am ambivalent. If it were doing what it was supposed to, there would be no issue. But it is not. Everything dies, after all.” S&F, JJJ

Four children to raise...there you have it.  Freemasonry in the 21st century must be of value to its members, and when it is not, they leave.  Some still pay their dues, but they leave, and when economic times are tough, they leave and they stop paying their dues.   

Time is precious, this is the lesson of the Chamber of Reflection, and the very rational for the One Day Classes, the only thing that has saved our number over the last few years. However, once inside the door, the door of the individual lodges, members find their experiences less than inspirational.  

The key to making Masonic meetings the core of our work, meaningful to younger and newer members is to make them meaningful to life.  They need to stand separate from the commonalities and trivialities of the day, and provide genuine working tools for self-education, improvements, and service to one's family, lodge, and community.

Changing the Future
I ask you to take this list back to your lodges and force, yes, force the discussion with your fellow members.  Do the intervention. 

  1. Smaller number of members
  2. Reduction of expenses through rental of temple space from other halls or public space such as hotels – as it was done in the good old days of the 18th century in colonial America.
  3. Merger of lodges before all the financial and human resources are destroyed through useless efforts to maintain buildings at all costs.
  4. Fundraising that supports the community and not the maintenance of the hall and physical temple.
  5. Higher dues.
  6. Mandatory attendance.
  7. Day Lodges for those working second and third shifts, or even older members who do not want to travel at night.
  8. Informative and useful programs that are directly applicable to the spiritual, psychological, and material life of the members.  
  9. Mentorship programs both in relation to Freemasonry for all new members, but also more mundane areas of life as well.  We have a wealth of knowledge here, let's pass it on.
  10. Get away from big is better;  make it so that just paying dues is not enough to be considered a member in good standing.  In some jurisdictions lodges meet weekly and dues are collected monthly to ensure attendance. 

The Past is the Future.
Part of this adaptation has become the formation of Traditional Observance Lodges, and the gravitation of members towards them.  At the moment there are only two in Pennsylvania that I am aware of, but they are healthy, have high attendance, and their major drawback is that members must maintain dual membership. 

Freemasonry in general, and Pennsylvania Freemasonry in particular, must reclaim its status as a bulwark of culture and values in a world increasingly alienated, disconnected, and even hostile to our roots and traditions.  

This status will not be reclaimed by going along as we have been, or being afraid of offending our own brethren or leaders, but by courageous stating the truth and standing by it.  We are at a crossroads, a crises point, for the organization, but also for society and civilization as a whole.  We can either move forward to a brighter, stronger,and more illuminated tomorrow, or we, as individual lodges that are a part of the body of Freemasonry as a whole – continue as we have for the last forty years, and end up in the dustbin of history with future masons wondering 'what could have been'.   

Again, we are here to look at the future of Freemasonry and ask the question, what does karma, science, and evolution got to do with it? And the answer is everything.  We as individual Freemasons as well as lodges must look at the actions we are taking, that is the karma, examine them against the results we are getting and modify them or adopt entirely new ones altogether, that is the science.  We must use our ability to identify and solve problems, instead of relying on old habits that may be detrimental to the good of the order.  In the end, we must adapt if we are to survive and prosper as a respectable and meaningful, and honorable fraternity, that is the evolution.  The choice is fully, completely, and ultimately up to you.  Thank you.

Summary of Replies During the Question and Answer Session 

Masonry is a big tent, remind members that there is room for all of you. Neither ask anyone to change, nor be forced to change for them. All are equal under the law. This means, Masonry must enhance our religious and spiritual commitment not diminish it. Encourage each on their Path.

Establish a Masonic education meeting once a month in your lodge. Get tracing boards and discuss them. Use my book to get started it has questions and suggested reading at the end of each chapter.

If there is not enough interest in your lodge, make it a district wide activity.

Or, Make it a 'book club' or 'reading society' and open it to the public, there is nothing preventing you from doing so. Meet in your public library. You may find that you attract new and more philosophical members to the Craft.

Use the reading list from the Pennsylvania Academy or your own Jurisdiction's equivalent.

Make double use of your time and if in PA get credit towards your Scholar certification - a nice badge as a reminder of your work, and to inspire others. Hey, you are doing the work anyhow, so get credit for it.

Persevere and do the Work for yourselves and to assist those who are interested and not for any other reason. At least in Pa, we are blessed, and there is nothing that needs to be changed only used and enhanced- we have many tools available on the GL website - and that is our individual enhancement and enthusiasm for the Craft.

Mark Stavish has been a long-time student of esotericism and is a frequent lecturer on ancient occult knowledge. Founder of the Institute for Hermetic Studies (www.hermeticinstitute.org), he is the author of numerous articles on Western esotericism. In 2001 he established the Louis Claude de St. Martin Fund, a non-profit dedicated to advancing the study and practice of Western Esotericism. He has also served as a consultant to print and broadcast media and several documentaries. He holds undergraduate degrees in Theology and Communications and a Master's in Counseling. He can be contacted at:  info@hermeticinstitute.org.