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Whenever we get e-mail asserting that Freemasonry is a religion (or whatever), we've always responded: "No, you're wrong! It's a fraternity."
Much to our surprise - and after giving this same response for 6-7 years - we received a perfectly sincere question in return asking "What do you mean?" At first, we thought that he was being sarcastic or taunting but based on his earlier messages, that seemed completely out of place. We then wondered if we'd been corresponding with a teen-ager but realized that his vocabulary and online behavior were certainly far more mature than any teen - and having worked with the Order of DeMolay for our own entire adult life, we figured we could tell.
So we wrote back and asked, "What do YOU mean? Don't you know what a fraternity is?"
The reply was really shocking: NO! He'd looked up the dictionary and had found a definition but it was still something he didn't understand. Thinking about this, we decided that we'd TRY to explain the concept here but we recognize at the outset that unless someone has had a peripheral experience from which to extrapolate, it may STILL be totally meaningless to them.
A fraternity is - for all intents and purposes - a group of males who have banded together with a formal rule structure that governs their organization. They have a methodology for selecting new members as well as an initiation process that is essentially the same for each and every new member regardless of where or when he joins. Their organization encourages the concept of working for their common good and many fraternities explicitly also espouse a 'service' or charity concept as part of their reason for being.
Those who grew up 30 or more years ago came into contact with fraternities regularly either through their own college activities or through various movies or family stories. The nuclear family has rapidly disintegrated since that time and because of excesses, colleges have - in many cases - severely discouraged such groups, even to the point of banning all such activity on campus. Movies aren't made about fraternities very often and so it's quite conceivable that an individual really has no concept of what a fraternity is/does.
While we often use the word 'fraternity' to describe Freemasonry, that term is a bit off the mark. Those familiar with college fraternities, for example, know that members pledge themselves to support each other over all others. This is NOT the case in Freemasonry where such preference is specifically circumscribed to be 'when all else is equal'.
Certainly there is a generally standardized process for receiving candidates and there are generally standardized rituals that a member will pass through before he becomes a full member of the organization. Members do understand that they can rely on their Brothers even when such reliance places them both at peril of life and limb.
Where the comparison begins to break down, though, is that unlike a college fraternity, for example, Freemasons agree to help one another ONLY when all other things are equal. If one were to think about this objectively, they'd realize that even golf club members might show more preference to 'their own' than do Masons - yet since that's not what makes good stories, it's far easier to fantasize that Masons never get parking tickets, always get the best jobs, and are never accountable for anything they do.
I'm a fraternity member. Will I enjoy Freemasonry?
One of the questions we regularly are asked is whether or not those who've been involved with a college fraternity will find the same bond of friendship and brotherhood as a Freemasonry. The answer is an unequivocal "YES"! For a lot of those who've joined fraternities during their youth, being a Mason is a very natural extension of the closeness and shared service they've already experienced and enjoyed.
Of course, ribald humor and pranks are not a part of the Masonic experience so depending on the fraternity to which you belonged, this may be slightly different. If you were part of a service-oriented group, though, you'll feel very much at home.
In any event, the extent of your brotherhood will be FAR greater than that of any college fraternity or club and it will be as important (if not moreso) than your current fraternal membership is.
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