WASHINGTON -- As members of a secretive brotherhood, Freemasons are no strangers to conspiracy theories. They've heard it all before: that they're child-sacrificing cult members, or religious zealots plotting aNew World Order with the Jews, or satanic anti-religious alien spies.
With Dan Brown's newest novel, "The Lost Symbol," hitting bookstores on Sept. 15, -- much of it rumored to center around Masonic myths -- the Masons are in preemptive damage-control mode. Even though Brown (of "The Da Vinci Code" fame) and his publisher, Doubleday, are being tight-lipped about the book's contents, some Masons are preparing for an onslaught of negative press. And because Brown is known for tying religious themes to his thrillers' plots, Masons are carefully addressing common misconceptions about their religious affiliations.
"There is the basic question asked: Do you believe in God?" said Richard Fletcher, executive secretary of the Masonic Service Association of North America. "Beyond (requiring a belief in God), we're not a religion, and we don't pretend to be."
Because the book's contents are so hush-hush, Fletcher and others aren't sure what to expect. The only information Doubleday has released so far is the book's cover art and sporadic Twitter "clues" that hint at Freemasonry, religion and America's founding fathers. Mark Koltko-Rivera, a Mason from New York City and author of the upcoming book, "Discovering the Lost Symbol," which tries to anticipate charges leveled in Brown's novel, created a blog to discuss and interpret each Twitter clue. Based on those clues, Koltko-Rivera is convinced that Freemasons --particularly the Scottish Rite branch -- "will take it in the chops."
A psychologist by trade with particular interest in psychology of religion, Koltko-Rivera thinks Brown will try to associate Freemasonry with religious extremists or, as one Twitter clue suggested, that the founding fathers subscribed to deism (a generic belief in God) rather than theism (a belief in God as creator and ruler).
"That alone would really tick people off," Koltko-Rivera said, "and that's a religious position Dan Brown would be comfortable with."
Fletcher said Freemasonry has been scrutinized for centuries because it welcomes men of all faiths to join. He said that Nazis forced Masons into concentration camps because Freemasonry welcomed Jews as members.
Noting that Jews are themselves no stranger to conspiracy theories,"a lot of anti-Masonry is rooted in anti-Semitism," he said.
Jay Kinney, a Mason and writer from California, is releasing a book to counter Masonic falsehoods a week before Brown's book goes on sale. Kinney's book, "Masonic Myth," delves into the mysterious history of the Freemasons and carefully dispels rumors and misconceptions about the brotherhood.
Kinney said he avoided mentioning Brown or his novel in his book, and he's not trying to guess what conspiracy theories Brown might try to advance.
"On the whole, my approach to the book is to not have Dan Brown define what I'd be writing about." Kinney said. "I just tried to reboot the subject and methodically go from there. If a reader reads Dan Brown and has questions, undoubtedly they will have a variety of books and sources that will offer counter information or clarification."
One blogger explicitly warned readers about the "Dan Brown Effect"-- the response that followed "The Da Vinci Code" by misinformed and sometimes gullible readers who take historical fiction as historical fact.
"The Da Vinci Code" sold more than 80 million copies worldwide and stirred up controversy by suggesting a romantic relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, upsetting Christian groups and historians who argued against the plot's historical and biblical inaccuracies.
"This is a major development that will affect the public perception of Freemasonry for years. Don't forget that tens of millions of people think they understood what Opus Dei was after they read '(The) Da Vinci Code," wrote Chris Hodapp, a Mason from Indianapolis, Ind., and author of "Freemasons for Dummies," in his blog of the same name.
The news isn't all bad, however. Whether Brown makes Masons the good guys or the villains, members of the brotherhood seem to agree that the attention could nonetheless pique people's interest and lead to increased membership requests.
"This is a truly once-in-a-lifetime chance for this fraternity. Not to go trawling in shallow waters for new members, but to educate the public and make sure men know who we are, where we are, and what we offer them," Hodapp said in his blog. In Washington, officials at the landmark Temple of the Scottish Rite, which sits about a dozen blocks north of the White House, said are bracing themselves for expected bus loads of curious tourists in the weeks surrounding the book's release.
But they're not quite sure whether to expect hostility, curiosity or a little of both. Neither the Freemasons, nor the rest of the world,will know for sure how the Masons are treated in the book until it's released on Sept. 15.
By S.J. VELASQUEZ
Religion News Service
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