Despite their rituals, Shriners shy away from spiritual nature
Friday, June 28, 2002
The Shriners who flooded the city with their red fezzes, clown costumes, eight-man bicycles and exotic regalia tended to answer with the same line: "We are a fraternal organization devoted to having fun and helping kids."
Which is true, as far as it goes. But it's also undeniable, given dictionary definitions, the Shriners (formally known as The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine) are a religion, a group of 500,000 North American men committed to revering a Supreme Being.
To avoid scandalizing outsiders -- and because most Shriners are decent guys who honestly don't think they pose a threat to orthodox faiths -- they play down their religiosity. Still, spiritual overtones ooze from every corner of the Shriners' organization.
Shriner clown Dave Tinklepaugh, of Endicott, N.Y., may not have realized he was contradicting himself this week when he said: "The Shriners aren't a religion. But every Shriner is expected to believe in a higher deity and the immutability of the soul."
Tinklepaugh's description of Shriner beliefs perfectly corresponds with how the HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion defines religion as "a system of beliefs and practices that are relative to superhuman beings ... and specifically related to myths and rituals."
To become a Shriner, a man must first become a member of the Freemasons, a centuries-old, 10-million member international fraternal order replete with unusual mystical rituals. It's often called "the world's largest secret society."
Stanford University Professor Paul Rich, a specialist in fraternal organizations, says even though most Shriners would be amazed someone would see their "fun" rites as religious, there is no denying it. The Shriners appear to operate as a surrogate masculine religion, he says, in which men can take part in muscular dramas.
The Shriners were formed in the 1870s by two theatrical New York Freemasons who became entranced with Arabic and Muslim lore.
They developed rites in which God is referred to by many names, including "Allah," "Father" and the "Grand Geometrician." Shriners have traditionally prayed by facing toward Mecca (the most holy city in Islam) and initiation ceremonies include the Bible, altars, holy titles and devotion to "the everlasting foundation of God-given law."
The blood oath of secrecy represents the most contentious display of religion in the Shriners.
The Encyclopedia of Fraternities, by Albert Stevens, contains this description of the macabre punishment a Shriner agrees to if he ever transgress his obligations to the mystic Shrine: "In willful violation whereof may I incur the fearful penalty of having my eyeballs pierced to the centre with a three-edged blade, my feet flayed, and I be forced to walk the hot sands upon the sterile shores of the Red Sea until the flaming sun shall strike me with livid plague, and may Allah, the god of Arab, Moslem and Mohammedan, the god of our fathers, support me to the entire fulfillment of the same. Amen. Amen. Amen."
Ask Shriners about this gory, over-the-top oath, and they'll say it was never meant to be taken with dead seriousness. The oath is mainly there, they say, to remind Shriners not to turn their backs on their fraternal brothers or on the call to be charitable.
The Shriners have reason to be cautious about whether outsiders view them as a strange religion.
Despite the fact that -- or perhaps because -- the Shriners have included some of North America's most powerful men including several U.S. presidents, Canadian prime minister John Diefenbaker, B.C. premier W.A.C. Bennett and many more, they've often spawned fear.
Conspiracy theories still abound about the Shriners. After writing a feature on the Shriners, for instance, I received an anonymous letter accusing the Shriners of being "secret rulers of the world who have created every bloody war on this Earth serving very negative forces."
Conservative Christian groups, in addition, have often denounced the Freemasons and Shriners as an alternative religion, even though many Shriners are active Protestants.
Muslims especially have been put off by the Shriners. The Shriners' emblem, for instance, is almost a direct copy of a key symbol used by Muslims: the crescent and star.
Stanford University's Rich says Shriners shouldn't be surprised Muslims believe Shriners are parodying their religion. Noted Vancouver Muslim Itrath Syed, for one, finds the Shriners appropriation of Islamic themes annoying, even though she recognizes they do good work.
"It seems to me the Shriners took what they wanted from Muslim and Arab culture, ignored the original meaning, ascribed new meaning to it and patched it together. It's as if they were creating their own little fantasy, which at one level seems harmless, but at another level seems part of a larger imperialistic project."
Shriners like B.C.'s Jim Harrison realize its time to tone down some of the Muslim references. But they insist they eagerly welcome Christians, Jews and Muslims. And they claim Shriners' generic beliefs in a deity and an afterlife can be integrated with the specific claims of any of the monotheistic religions.
None of this controversy should take away from what the Shriners do for each other's families and for disabled kids. Shriners hardly deserve to be ridiculed for taking part in a religious organization. It's just too bad, for their sakes, they can't be more straightforward about the essentially spiritual nature of their fraternity.
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