This is rather like asking the question "What is a Church?" or, "What is Faith?" People who are asked such a question will give different answers, in their own words, based on their own perceptions, experience and education. The most common answer is "A peculiar system of morality, based on allegory and illustrated with symbols". It is, therefore, a moral society which attempts to encourage men to be upright in family, in business and in public life. All Freemasons are taught that any duties which they have as a Freemason come only after their duties to family, work, and faith. In no circumstances should their membership interfere with these aspects of their lives.
The basic 'unit' of Freemasonry is the Lodge. This was the basic unit of stonemasons, references to which are found in Scottish records as early as 1491. Over time men who were not stonemasons became members of these Lodges until many Lodges had few or no stonemasons left. It is clear from existing records that stonemasons taught new members morality without infringing on matters that were the concern of the church. In educating their members they performed ritual 'plays' based on legends of the origins of the craft of stone masonry. These plays were common during the medieval period as the majority of people were illiterate and a dramatic representation was a popular teaching method. It is not surprising to learn that the 'props' used in these plays were the working tools of the stonemasons, something with which they were intimately familiar and to which they ascribed certain meanings. This form of teaching is no longer common but perhaps the Passion Plays at Oberammergau (Germany) are the nearest, albeit religious, equivalent today.
Another way of explaining what Freemasonry is, is to detail what it is not. It is not a religion, it has no theology, and it offers no answers on matters of salvation etc., as these are the preserve of churches. All Freemasons are encouraged to find answers to such questions through their own faith, religion and church. Freemasonry is not a substitute for religion and members are urged to respect the teaching of their own faith and not to allow Freemasonry to infringe, in any way, on the member's duty to their mosque, church, synagogue, etc. For this reason Lodges in Christian countries do not meet on Sundays. Lodges within Jewish communities do not meet on Saturdays and Lodges with a predominately Muslin membership will respect the Holy Days of that faith.
Freemasonry is not a political organization. It will not comment on, nor offer, opinions as to competing forms of Government.
The Essential Qualification for Membership
The essential qualification for admission, and continuing membership, is a belief in the Supreme Being. Membership is open to men of any race or religion who can fulfill this essential qualification and are of good repute.
Freemasonry and Religion
Freemasonry is not a religion, nor is it a substitute for religion. Its essential qualification opens it to men of many religions and it expects them to continue to follow their own faith. It does not allow religion to be discussed at its meetings.
The Three Great Principles
For many years Freemasons have followed three great principles
Brotherly Love -- Every true Freemason will show tolerance and respect for the opinions of others and behave with kindness and understanding to his fellow creatures.
Relief -- Freemasons are taught to practice charity, and to care, not only for their own, but also for the community as a whole, both by charitable giving, and by voluntary efforts and works as individuals.
Truth -- Freemasons strive for truth, requiring high moral standards and aiming to achieve them in their own lives.
Freemasons believe that these principles represent a way of achieving higher standards in life.
From its earliest days, Freemasonry has been concerned with the care of orphans, the sick and the aged. This work continues today. In addition, large sums are given to national and local charities.
Freemasonry and Society
Freemasonry demands from its members a respect for the law of the country in which a man works and lives. Its principles do not in any way conflict with its members' duties as citizens, but should strengthen them in fulfilling their private and public responsibilities. The use by a Freemason of his membership to promote his own or anyone else's business, professional or personal interests is condemned, and is contrary to the conditions on which he sought admission to Freemasonry. His duty as a citizen must always prevail over any obligation to other Freemasons, and any attempt to shield a Freemason who has acted dishonorably or unlawfully is contrary to this prime duty.
The secrets of Freemasonry are concerned with its traditional modes of recognition. It is not a secret society, since all members are free to acknowledge their membership. Its constitutions and rules are available to the public. There is no secret about any of its aims and principles. Like many other societies, it regards some of its internal affairs as private matters for its members.
Freemasonry and Politics
Freemasonry is non-political, and the discussion of politics at Masonic meetings is forbidden.
Other Masonic Bodies
Freemasonry is practiced under many independent Grand Lodges with standards similar to those set by the Grand Lodge of Scotland. There are some Grand Lodges and other apparently Masonic bodies which do not meet these standards, e.g. which do not require a belief in the Supreme Being, or which allow or encourage their members to participate in political matters. These Grand Lodges and bodies are not recognized by the Grand Lodge of Scotland as being Masonically regular, and Masonic contact with them is forbidden.
A Freemason is encouraged to do his duty first to God (by whatever name he is known) through his faith and religious practice; and then, without detriment to his family and those dependent on him, to his neighbour through charity and service. None of these ideas is exclusively Masonic, but all should be universally acceptable. Freemasons are expected to follow them.