by Jim Walker
           Originated: 26 Dec. 2004

The history of Freemasonry remains unclear and many historians debate its origins, but most scholars agree that however it began, it resulted in a revolt against orthodox religion. According to historian John J. Robinson, the Knights Templar, a religious sect, escaped arrest and torture by the Pope and formed a secret society of mutual protection that later formed into what later became known as Freemasonry.
In the 18th century, Freemasonry acted as a powerful force for religious freedom and practiced the concept of separation of religion and organization (perhaps the first organization to do so), and the precursor to separation of church and state. Although as one of the requirements for the membership of Freemasonry, one had to have a belief in a Supreme Being, it didn't matter to the organization what deity you believed in. A Christian, Jew, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, or a Deist could join Freemasonry.
A deist, by definition, does not believe in a personal god, but rather claims a belief in an initial creator of the universe (nature's god) but who after setting it into motion, abandoned it (or died) with no influence on natural phenomena or supernatural revelation. Many early Americans belonged to Freemasonry who claimed belief in a deist form of nature's god. This served as about as close to atheism as society would allow in early America.
Bigotry and religious intolerance in the early colonies in America formed a way of life. They had their own state religions. According to Robinson, "Roger Williams fled religious intolerance in Massachusetts to found Rhode Island, and even the Catholic Calverts only got their charter for Maryland by agreeing that the state religion would be Anglican Catholicism. Virginia was militantly Church of England, with laws calling for the public whipping of Baptist and methodist ministers who dared to preach sermons to their followers." The early Masons took seriously the idea that how a man chose to worship should remain only as his own personal business. George Washington served as a master Mason and remained a Mason until he died. Benjamin Franklin served as the head of the fraternity in Pennsylvania, as did Paul Revere and Joseph Warren in Massachusetts. Other famous Masons include John Hancock, John Sullivan, Lafayette, Baron Fredrick von Stuben, Nathanael Greene, and John Paul Jones. Mason Chief Justice John Marshall, shaped the Supreme Court into its present form.
Of course the orthodox religions strongly opposed Freemasonry organizations. So strongly did the Catholics oppose freemasonry, that in 1884, Pope Leo XIII formed an encyclical Humanum Genus, the strongest and most comprehensive papal condemnation of Freemasonry up to that time. The encyclical stated that, "this Apostolic See denounced and openly declared that the sect of Masons is established against law and honesty, and is equally a danger to Christianity as well as to society.... They deny that anything has been revealed by God; they do not admit any religious dogma and truth but what human intelligence can comprehend..."
The encyclical's most revealing statement showed the Church's own position against religious freedom and how the Mason's practiced separation from church and state:
"Now, if one watches the proceedings of the Masons, in respect of religion especially, where they are more free to do what they like, it will appear that they carry faithfully into execution the tenets of the naturalists. They work, indeed, obstinately to the end that neither the teacher nor the authority of the Church may have any influence; and therefore they preach and maintain the full separation of the Church from the State. So law and government are wrested from the wholesome and divine virtue of the Catholic Church, and they want, therefore, by all means to rule States independent of the institutions and doctrines of the Church." [Bold characters, mine]
Even though each member of Freemasonry must assert his belief in a Supreme Being, no one must question his idea of a Supreme Being. Revealingly Mason lodge meetings did not allow the discussion of religious beliefs, nor may any member try to persuade any other Mason to his point of view or creed.
Not coincidentally, the first American government once practiced separation of church and state in the line of Freemason tenets. Sadly, most American religious believers fail to see the importance of this separation (some even deny it ever existed!), thinking that by forcing religion on society they act against unbelief, but it will eventually end up hurting their own religious practices while, ironically, it won't faze atheism in the least.

John J. Robinson, "Born In Blood, The Lost Secrets of Freemasonry," 1989, M. Evans and Company, Inc.
History of Freemasonry by The Masonic Service Association of North America