What distinguishes a secret society from simply a society with secrets is the fact that, in a secret society, the secret maintains a central role in the organization. The secret is considered to provide some sort of power or privilege. The membership in the society is necessarily selective. And the society has the right to impose sanctions on those who reveal its secrets. One thing worth pointing out is that a secret society doesn't have to be a conspiracy (though all conspiracies would, by definition, be secret societies). I believe that herein lies much of the confusion as to whether or not Masonry is a secret society. Masonry is most definitely a secret society. It is, however, in no way a conspiracy (except of the most abstract and metaphysical kind, a point which I will return to later). Now, in this information age, it may seem absurd to put so much emphasis on "secrets" that can be discovered by a quick search on-line. So what is the purpose of keeping a secret? I believe the answer is: respect. We keep the secrets of Masonry for the same reason that we don't tell a stranger about our lover's habits in bed. But what does it mean to have this secret? It means that we are a society that is set apart from the one in which we normally live. Secret societies exist on the edge of legitimacy. Sometimes they go beyond that edge when they become criminal or revolutionary. But even when, as in the case of Freemasonry, they remain on this side of the law, they must still push the edge of the mainstream. So what does that mean for Freemasonry? When it began, Freemasonry was revolutionary. It acknowledged the legitimacy of all religions at a time in which that could be considered heresy. It promoted the ideals of democracy at at time in which monarchies still ruled the world. But then, as someone once said, "the problem is, we won." But did we really? I would like to include a short quote from Cosmic Trigger II by Robert Anton Wilson,
As soon as Nixon resigned, the lesson was forgotten, and the majority returned to their usual habit of believing whatever the government said . . . Why not? The masses were trained for millennia to regard the king as a Sun-God. Just because some intellectual Freemasons invented Democracy at the dawn of the Industrial Age doesn't mean that thousands of years of conditioning will disappear immediately.There is a Chinese saying, "the officials draw their power from the law; the people, from the secret societies." Masonry is a secret society. And we have a responsibility to carry forward. I believe that this significance of the purpose of Freemasonry has been diluted by an attempt to join the mainstream, to say that we are not a secret society, but merely a society with secrets. We have tried to make ourselves seem legitimate. Whenever a conspiracy theorist comes out with some accusation against Freemasonry, our society reacts against it with fear. But as the old saying goes, "there's no such thing as bad press." The conspiracy theorists, are, of course, wrong about just about every claim they make about Masons. But they are right about one thing: we are up to something. And pretending that we are not seems to me an insult to what we stand for. What we are up to is improving the quality of life of humanity. We start by improving ourselves. Our means are primarily by the values of the Enlightenment. These values are no less relevant today than they were three-hundred years ago. While there are relatively few self-proclaimed enemies of Freemasonry, in fact, every person who limits another's freedom, every person who promotes inequality, every person who sows division among men, is an enemy of Freemasonry. I say this not to dwell on the idea of the "enemy", but rather to emphasize that our work is not done. And to this extent, we are a conspiracy, a conspiracy of Light.