Page last updated at 10:03 GMT, Thursday, 17 September 2009 11:03 UK

Can we trust Dan Brown on the Freemasons?

The Lost Symbol, the new novel by Dan Brown, is about the pursuit of "ancient mysteries" hidden in Washington DC by the Freemasons. So does the book give an accurate portrayal of the fraternal group?

WHAT IS FREEMASONRY?
Freemasons in County Durham
One of world's oldest secular fraternal societies
It's a society of men concerned with moral and spiritual values
Members are taught these values through ritual dramas
Three abiding principles are brotherly love, relief and truth
Source: United Grand Lodge

There were predictions that The Lost Symbol would antagonise the Freemasons in the same way that the Catholic Church was stung by The Da Vinci Code.

But far from attacking the Masons, his new work depicts them as benign and misunderstood.

The protagonist Robert Langdon, an expert in symbols, is trying to crack a series of cryptic clues related to Masonic secrets hidden in some of Washington's most famous buildings. At the start of the novel, he attempts to explode what he says are myths surrounding Freemasonry.

So how much of Dan Brown's portrayal of the Masons is accurate? We pick five points made in the novel and ask two experts to respond.

John Hamill is a Masonic historian who was librarian at the Grand Lodge of England in central London Martin Short is the author of Inside The Brotherhood, an anti-Masonic work published in 1998

OPEN DOORS

Dan Brown says: There is no discrimination in the Masons. At one point, Langdon says: "Masonry is open to all men of all races, colours and creeds, and provides a spiritual fraternity that does not discriminate in any way."

Mason says: Freemasonry does not discriminate on grounds of race, colour, religion, political view, social or economic standing. The prime qualification for admission is a religious belief and what that belief is is solely a matter for the individual. Under the United Grand Lodge of England, membership is male but this does not discriminate against women as there exist in England two other Grand Lodges which restrict their membership to women and two organisations which have mixed male and female membership. Freemasonry is about bringing people together to see how they can work together for the good of the community as a whole. It is for that reason that the discussion of politics and religion - the two subjects which most divide people - has always been banned at Masonic meetings.

Critic says: Freemasonry has always been highly supportive of the status quo, in whatever country that is. The Grand Lodge in England refuses to accept women. Many join the Freemasons to get away from women. They don't go to reinforce marriage but to enjoy a hobby where no women are present. It's quite misogynistic but they would say they stand by marriage and their first loyalty is always to their family.

DRINKING FROM SKULLS

Dan Brown says: Red wine is drunk out of a skull during the initiation ritual.

Dan Brown
Fears among Masons that his new book would knock them were unfounded

Mason says: Masons do not drink red wine out of a skull in any ceremony. This myth was started in the 1890s by a notorious French anti-Mason who, under the pen name Leo Taxil, wrote lurid exposures of what he claimed to be Masonic rituals.

Critic says: That's not part of what I would call basic Craft Freemasonry (the prevailing strand of masonry). In the initiation, the person is blindfolded, a rope around his neck and a dagger placed at his breast. For someone of a sensitive disposition this could be quite frightening and having gone through that, you're bound to form a bond of mutual defence and support for people you don't know. You have no idea who you're swearing your allegiance to and that's unacceptable.

MOCK MURDERS

Dan Brown says: There is also a death ritual in which a mock murder is performed

Mason says: At one point in the Master Mason degree (the most senior of three steps) the candidate figuratively represents a character who suffered death rather than betray the trust which had been reposed in him. It is a rather dramatic means of reminding the candidate that morality and integrity are essential virtues in any well ordered community.

Critic says: That is correct. The basic myth is that Hiram Abiff, the alleged architect of the alleged Temple of Solomon, was murdered because he would not divulge the secrets of its construction. In the third degree [step] of Craft Freemasonry, this murder is ritualised and not only is the candidate symbolically murdered, but he then goes through a resurrection ritual.

BELIEFS

Dan Brown says: "The difference between Masonic spirituality and organized religion is that the Masons do not impose a specific definition or name on a high power" (Robert Langdon)

Da Vinci Code actors
Prof Robert Langdon, as portrayed by actor Tom Hanks, right

Mason says: Freemasonry is not a religion, nor is it a substitute for religion. It has a religious basis in that you must have a religious belief to be admitted and the ceremonies are based on the Old Testament telling of the building of King Solomon's Temple but, as Dan Brown points out in the book, Freemasonry "fails the ABC test" - at one point Langdon says: "Masons make no promises of salvation; they have no specific theology: and they do not seek to convert you".

Critic says: The Anglo-Saxon Freemasons (English, Scottish, Irish and US) do specify a god and they do give him a name - the Great Architect of the Universe. In ritual books it is abbreviated to GAOTU. In my view it is a monotheistic religion and for many men it's a substitute for religion.

MASONIC CAPITOL

Dan Brown says: Washington was built by Masons. In the novel, the Brown's narrator says: "It was no secret that DC had a rich Masonic history. The cornerstone of this very building had been laid in a full Masonic ritual by George Washington himself. This city had been conceived and designed by Master Masons - George Washington, Ben Franklin and Pierre L'Enfant - powerful minds who adorned their new capital with Masonic symbolism, architecture and art."

Mason says: Washington DC does indeed have a rich Masonic history. As architectural elements are used as Masonic symbols and the architecture of Washington DC is heavily classical, many buildings do appear to have Masonic elements. It is a bit "chicken and egg". Are they simply classical decoration or were they deliberately put there as Masonic symbols? Only the architect would know. The claim that the ground plan for Washington DC was designed to form a central square and compasses, however, Dan Brown himself knocks down when he has Langdon point out that you can make all sorts of shapes by joining up points on a street plan.

Critic says: There's no doubt that the Masons played a very big part in the formation of the US and when it comes to the architecture of Washington, there are a number of Masonic elements to it. But membership numbers have been in decline in recent years and I don't think today there are many Masons in the US administration or the UK government.



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