Freemasonry or Masonry consists of fraternal organisations that trace their origins to the local fraternities of stonemasons, which from the end of the fourteenth century regulated the qualifications of stonemasons and their interaction with authorities and clients.
The basic, local organisational unit of Freemasonry is the Lodge. The Lodges are usually supervised and governed at the regional level (usually coterminous with either a state, province, or national border) by a Grand Lodge or Grand Orient. There is no international, world-wide Grand Lodge that supervises all of Freemasonry; each Grand Lodge is independent, and they do not necessarily recognise each other as being legitimate.
Modern Freemasonry broadly consists of two main recognition groups. "Regular" Freemasonry insists that a volume of scripture is open in a working lodge, that every member profess belief in a Deity, that no women are admitted, and that the discussion of religion and politics is banned. The regional organizations are usually termed Grand Lodges. "Continental" Freemasonry is now the general term for the "liberal" jurisdictions who have removed some, or all, of these restrictions. The regional organizations are usually termed Grand Orients.
Controversies and criticisms
Freemasonry has a secretive structure, in which initiates gradually advance to new "degrees", learn "secrets", and swear to be loyal to one another. This has caused accusations, such as of Freemasons forming secret societies and inappropriately promoting the careers and interests of one another.
Another criticism has been by various established religious groups, as either openly or indirectly supporting or promoting beliefs contradicting established religion. Such argued non-standard beliefs have included non-orthodox deism, mysticism/occultism, and even worship of a "Masonic God", "Jahbulon". This may have caused Freemasonry to be avoided by conservatives and favored by some liberals/leftists.
The above characteristics may have contributed to Freemasonry being involved, or alleged to be involved, in many "leftist" conspiracies and revolutions, and being involved in the promotion of ideologies such as liberalism. This in particular before Communism became an important leftist ideology. The French Revolution is often mentioned example.
The Catholic Church and Freemasonry have had a particularly antagonistic relationship and many critics of Freemasonry have been Catholics. From 1738 until 1983, Catholics who publicly associated with, or publicly supported, Masonic organizations were censured with automatic excommunication. Since 1983, the prohibition on membership exists in a different form.
Some critics of Jewish influence have argued that the "mysteries" of Freemasonry have to some degree been influenced by Kabbalah (partly through Rosicrucianism), that Freemasonry by allowing Jews to be members allowed Jews to gain influence in societies that had historically tried to prevent this through various measures, that several influential Jews have been Freemasons, and that Jews and Freemasons often have had similar aims. This does not necessarily imply an organized conspiracy (see the article on conspiracy theories) but conspiracy allegations have been made (notably in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion).
Such views as well as critical views on argued relationships to Zionism are today likely more common in Muslim rather than in Western countries and have contributed to the decline (and often to the prohibition) of Freemasonry in many Muslim countries.
There are various fraternal organizations that to some degree have similarities with Freemasonry and that may to some degree have been similarly criticized, such as being secretive organizations inappropriately promoting the careers and interests of one another.
Freemasonry may have inspired, may be associated with, or otherwise may have similarities with controversial organizations such as the Illuminati, revolutionary societies such as the Carbonari, and the Jewish B'nai B'rith (which created the Anti-Defamation League).