Can an atheist be an Odd Fellow? In America, the land of the free, you’d think the answer would be, “Sure. Why not?” Religious discrimination is illegal!
But belief is very central to Odd Fellows because, as the largest Odd Fellows organization in America (the I.O.O.F.) says on its website, that “Any person of good character, of any race, gender, nationality and social status, who is loyal to their country and believes in a Supreme Being, is eligible for membership.” You need to believe to belong.
And what if you believe when you join and then become agnostic or atheist or believe in more than one God such as the Norse do (or other pantheistic religion)? Does this become a confessional? Will you be hunted like a witch?
Sadly, this sounds like discrimination to anyone who does not believe “in a Supreme Being” and opens us up to lawsuits. This is the simple truth. We may have created our own death knell.
How? Recently all Odd Fellows lodges in the I.O.O.F. were all required to update their by-laws with a blanket non-discrimination policy which states that the I.O.O.F. will not discriminate against any individual on the basis of the common categories to include “religion, or other social identity.” It’s not clear what that other social identity may be but it should clear that it’s a catch-all meant to include someone who is “non-binary” in their identity which could mean someone who isn’t religious or atheist but doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed by labels.
It should be noted as well that along with this non-discrimination policy, we did not remove the requirement to have an open Holy Bible during lodge sessions, the Chaplain post was not removed, the All-Seeing-Eye-of-God (found on the dollar bill) was not disappeared, the Lord’s Prayer was not deleted from Ritual, our degrees were not changed from stories based on the Judeo-Christian faith and the Rebekahs were not eliminated.
This Non-Discrimination Policy also says: The I.O.O.F. will not exclude any individual based on disability, age, ethnicity, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, or other social identity from the full and equal enjoyment of its services and facilities, unless the individual poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others, or him/herself, that cannot be eliminated by a modification of policies, practices, or procedures or by the provision of auxiliary aids or services. The I.O.O.F. will not exclude any individual from the full and equal enjoyment of its services and facilities because of the individual’s association with a person of disability, age, ethnicity, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion or other social identity.
This article isn’t being written to spur recruitment by the way. It is a message appealing to rational thought so that we may kill two birds with one stone: stop discrimination and avoid getting sued for discrimation. I believe that we all must recognize the power of words (in not just a legal sense but in all we do) and that words should not be used to try and fix a paper cut. Instead we must all look beyond the tempestuous nature of political correctness and the words that plague us and come to a place that we can all agree and come together as friends.
Having said that, no one should expect that every atheist in the world would suddenly want to join our organization should we do something really dramatic such as dropping this belief requirement. It would be foolish to even suggest that making such a change would transform Odd Fellows from an organization whose membership has been in sharp decline over the decades to one that is suddenly soaring in the sky. So, no this article will not transform us.
ONE SMALL CHANGE FOR AN ATHEIST IS...
Is there one small change that we could make which would have keep us from getting sued and also relieve the distressed who are the atheists who are members? The answer is that it has to do with our history and understanding of two words: respect and discrimination.
First, we need to recognize that the roots of Odd Fellowship stem from the Age of Enlightenment which began in the 1700s. The Declaration of Independence was a direct result of “the Enlightenment” as well. Also called the Age of Reason, new concepts were born such as “fraternity” which meant that we could rely on each other instead of relying on the Church.
Early Odd Fellows basked in the Enlightenment. The founder of my own lodge was the founder of the “New Age” and ran it as a weekly newspaper for over 25 years representing the cause of Odd Fellowship. Odd Fellows are New Agey? Yes, we were the original woo-woo people helping each other in times of need and paying it forward. Us.
The Enlightenment also provided tolerance for atheists. It did not promote atheism, but it championed the idea that atheists should be free of prosecution for their lack of belief or if their beliefs were different. The Enlightenment championed the end of charges for blasphemy against atheists and the fatal threat of execution as is practiced today in 13 Islamic countries. Should we shun atheists the way that these 13 Islamic countries do?
Along with “fraternity,” the ideas which formed the Constitution of the United States also were promoted and accepted: “individual liberty” and “religious freedom.” The late 1700s also saw the first groups calling themselves Odd Fellows in England and were also a product of the Enlightenment itself. These were all in stark opposition to hundreds of years of the oppressive commingling of the Church and monarchies after the Dark Ages. No more Inquisitions!
Today is as good a time as any to examine our roots and consider that Odd Fellows of the time recognized the importance of setting aside all our differences for each other. They forbade talk of politics and religion because they knew it led to bad blood among brothers. We should consider it our greatest wisdom to have such a policy and it has served us well. The lodge has become a place where fraternity and friendship are more important than divisive issues.
This wisdom is the wisdom of respect. If you respect someone, it doesn’t mean that you agree with them, but it does mean that you respect their right to think different, to believe different, to look different and to be different in any way they may be. Judgment is suspended.
If you think about it, back when someone was writing the requirements for being an Odd Fellow, they knew that there were many different Protestants: Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, Quakers and others and thus wanted to unite them all by asking if they believed in a Supreme Being. Perhaps they could have asked prospective members this question which would celebrated religious freedom instead, “Will you respect those believers who are different than you in any way and to grant them the freedom to worship different?“
Second, we need to recognize that every one of us discriminates all the time! Discrimination is only ever bad if it means being unfair. Discrimination (bias) is all-pervasive and invisible. Don’t believe it? Then answer these questions: Do you have a favorite food? Favorite automobile manufacturer? Favorite musician? Favorite sports team? Yes, we all have discriminating “tastes” and it isn’t inherently a bad thing. Again, it’s only ever bad if we are unfair.
What we need to recognize, once we see that we all discriminate, is that we don’t have to be unfair even though we discriminate. We don’t have to think that beer and wine can’t co-exist. We don’t have to think that Toyota and Ford can’t co-exist. We don’t need radio stations with only your favorite musician. We may have a problem with Michigan and Ohio State fans, but for the most part, we don’t have to hate a sports team that isn’t ours. Rivalry is not love.
Although divisiveness has been on the rise in America, and not just in politics, we don’t have to exclude someone based on their religion or lack thereof.
We can go back to our roots and see that Humanism, one of the other fruits of Enlightenment, is what we all seek. As Odd Fellows, we are like Humanists who enjoy being on equal footing with others where we are all brothers and sisters and equals. We can trust each other to raise motions, second them and vote as a way to guide our lodges forward; this makes us all equal.
This very idea that we have a right to Equality is also a product of the Enlightenment and something we already do as Odd Fellows; we can discriminate and set our differences aside.
What is illegal is to exclude people based on their differences and not treat them as equals.
Again, this is about the wisdom of respect. As we discover how others are different from us, obvious or not, it is our responsibility to not stand against them and to not condemn, banish or hate them for their choices, their causes or their ideas if different than our own.
With this belief requirement, aren’t we saying that atheists should be discriminated against?
...A CHANGE TO ONE REQUIREMENT...
Rather than have a policy which says that you must believe in a Supreme Being to be an Odd Fellow, we may consider that by bringing the wisdom of respect to the fore, and knowing that we all discriminate, we need to have a policy that not only reflects non-discrimination but also honors our roots. After all non-discrimination IS another fruit of the Enlightenment.
Society today is rife with examples of people wanting to be however they want to be in true freedom, whether it is to be an atheist, agnostic or something else altogether (or even if people want to be a different sex or asexual or something without a label) and we, as Odd Fellows, do not have to be unfair to people who want to be different or already are different. Should we say that if someone doesn’t believe in a Supreme Being that they are beneath being an Odd Fellow and that they don’t deserve to be part of the Brotherhood of Man? Are they beasts?
Considering all this, our policy, instead of saying that someone must believe in a Supreme Being, the Creator and Preserver of the Universe, we need to ask, “Will you respect those who are different than you in any way and to grant them the freedom to be different?“
...WITH NO OTHER CHANGES REQUIRED.
There can be no denying that Odd Fellows is a Judeo-Christian organization. We don’t have to lose that. The YMCA started as the Young Men’s Christian Association and has at the bottom of every page on their website is the following: The YMCA is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all.
Do atheists and agnostics go the Y and use their services? Every day.
Is there some reason why we can’t accept anyone who will join us in our mission and repeat our valediction? It will be up to them if they are OK with saying these words:
Odd Fellows Valediction
I AM AN ODD FELLOW:
I believe in the Fatherhood of God, and the Brotherhood of Man;
I believe in Friendship, Love and Truth as basic guides to the ultimate destiny of all mankind.
I believe my home, my church or temple, my lodge, and my community deserve my best work, my modest pride, my earnest faith, and my deepest loyalty, as I perform my duty “to visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead, and educate the orphan” and as I work with others to build a better world because in spirit and in truth, I am, and must always be, grateful to my Creator, faithful to my Country, and fraternal to my fellow man;
I AM AN ODD FELLOW!
Of course Odd Fellows will need to keep all of our Judeo-Christian trappings unless we become a completely new organization based on stories from movies and books and make a ton of other changes including the elimination of Rebekahs. Maybe the movie “Shawshank Redemption” can be shown during our Friendship degree? It would never be the same!
But the most important thing is that if we change just this one requirement, then it will no longer be illegal discrimination if we all respect each others’ differences (which includes those atheists respecting our Judeo-Christian influence/elements). Removing these elements from Odd Fellows would completely change the character and substance of Odd Fellows forever.
Don’t forget that a lodge is run by a Noble Grand and they have the freedom to liberally construe the code in a way that provides the best experience for members so long as they do not violate the spirit of the code. And any group of Odd Fellows (including non-members) can form their own lodge and run the lodge the way they want, again, so long as the spirit of the code is being honored.
I know of a lodge that has a moment of silence rather than the Lord’s Prayer. They also have an open Quran along with the Holy Bible. We should remember that inclusion is sometimes the simplest and easiest form of respect and guarantee against illegal discrimination.
Every member who has issues with an open Holy Bible or the Lord’s Prayer might also have problems with our emblems such as the All-Seeing-Eye-of-God. Will it be a problem? Well, that will be up to them, won’t it?
Remember this? “Will you respect those who are different than you in any way and to grant them the freedom to be different?” It works both ways. They are agreeing to respect believers just as believers agree to respect non-believers. This is how equality works. It will be up to them if a Judeo-Christian influenced organization is not their cup of tea or isn’t flexible enough for them; we can make this one change to avoid illegal discrimination and going forward everyone will be required to abide by our non-discrimination policy which will no longer be self-conflicting. So long as we have a non-discrimination policy, we will need to make at least this one change. Once they are a member and are initiated, they will need to answer this new question the same as every new Odd Fellow.