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Freemasonry is an international fraternity for men (although there are also some lodges for women). Membership is open to any male at least 18 years old (21 in some jurisdictions) who believes in a Supreme Divine Being and the immortality of the soul. Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, and even various Neo-Pagans are members.
The origins of Freemasonry are debatable. While some accounts trace it back to ancient Greece, Egypt, Israel during the building of Solomon's Temple, and even to Adam, these accounts are generally discounted now. What is known is that in 1717, several Masons met in London to form the first United Grand Lodge of England, as a governing force over British Masonry. Certainly, Masonry existed in England during the 17th century, and may have been involved with the formation of the Royal Society. Any attempt to show origins of Masonry before that time are usually speculation, theory, and outright wishful thinking.
Recently, two books have become popular trying to link Freemasonry with the medieval Knights Templar. "Born in Blood" by John Robinson, and "The Temple and the Lodge" by Baigent and Leigh purport to show this origin. While some interesting theories and reasonings are proposed, which are worth further study, no conclusive proof has been shown to accept this origin.
Freemasonry is not a religion, though anti-Masonic writers try to show that it is, and is also unchristian. Masonic beliefs are heavily influenced by 18th and 19th century Deism and Universalism. Masons must only swear a belief in a Divine Being, but is open to any religion otherwise. No atheist can be a Mason. Many confuse this non-discriminatory policy of welcoming all religious adherents as members to be endorsing the validity of all religions. Actually, religion, as well as politics, are forbidden topics in any lodge. How one worships is one's own private business. All Masonry demands is that you do have religious beliefs to rest your moral development on.
Masonic ritual revolves around the building of Solomon's Temple, and the death of the architect Hiram Abiff. Common ancient tools used in building, such as the trowel, plumb, level, compass, square, etc., are used in ritual. They all have symbolic meanings, relating to developing morality promoting the advancement of the members to the understanding of Universal Light. The ceremonies and objects are all symbolic allegories towards this purpose.
In spite of popular belief, Masonry is not a secret society, but a public society that has some secrets, such as initiatory ceremonies, passwords, and handshakes. There is no Masonic Conspiracy to control the United States, or the World. In reality, it's just a group of men, banding together to study and celebrate common moral beliefs and individual improvement.
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