When you were made an Entered Apprentice you will have been given a booklet produced by the Province of Hampshire & Isle of Wight. It provides a really good overview of Masonry and does not contain any sensitive information. Therefore, you can share this booklet with your family, friends and work colleagues. In fact, our Governing Body (UGLE) is actively encouraging a new era of openness. We have open days at most Lodges, Grand Lodge in London has a museum and runs guided tours 6 days a week (see www.ugle.org.uk), we have public display stands at events and we participate in events such as Remembrance Sunday. So I would encourage you to speak freely and proudly about your life in Masonry. Indeed, the only things you can’t share are specific details of the ceremonies conducted in the Temple and in particular the passwords/word and grips/tokens. You can of course describe the ceremony in very general terms. e.g. As we progress through each degree we conduct a series of traditional “playlets” that teach us certain things about the journey of becoming a Master Mason and certain moral lessons.
Like many ancient ceremonies (e.g. Black Rod at the Opening of Parliament) to the outsider these ceremonies and our mode of dress may seem a bit strange. However, these ceremonies are hundreds of years old and we preserve them as an important part of our cultural history. In reality all of this information is available on the Internet (along with all sorts of misinformation either inadvertently because ceremonies in different countries vary to ours, or deliberately from people who are ill-informed) so there is very little these days that is actually “secret”.
It’s worth saying at this point that part of the fun of your progression up to Master Mason (and beyond) is the unknown aspects of each ceremony you go through. Tempting though it is, you might not want to read too much about the ceremonies on the Internet until you’ve gone through them… simply because you’ll spoil the surprise for yourself. The shared experience we all have of participating in these ancient ceremonies for the first time, unsure what to expect…. is the reason why we keep the full details of the ceremony a secret. There’s no sinister reason for the secrecy, it is similar to not revealing to your kids the true identity of Santa Claus – why would you spoil that?
Your friends may ask why we have a reputation for secrecy. You can explain to them that it wasn’t always that way and in fact you can see examples of Victorian Newspapers where they provide details of Masonic Meetings and events, photos of members in regalia and so forth. However, Masons were one of the organizations that Hitler felt was a threat to his power – and during the war it is estimated that between 80,000-200,000 Masons on the Continent died in the Concentration Camps. Fearing an invasion, Masons in the UK became highly secretive. Unfortunately, this secrecy wasn’t then reversed Post-War. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suppression_of_Freemasonry#Nazi_Germany_and_occupied_Europe
Also you can explain that most of what we do in Freemasonry is (these days) in the public domain – particularly our charity work as we are a registered charity and therefore have public reporting obligations. The few secrets we have are no more than any private member’s organisation might have. Do you know exactly what goes on behind the doors of a company board room (that you don’t work for) or in the AGM meeting of your local Golf Club (if you’re not a member)?
Your friends may also ask about the secret words and handshakes and why we have them. Whilst you can’t reveal the details of these you can explain that they came about from a time when Masons could not necessarily all read/write. To prove what level of skill you had (and therefore what you would be paid) you identified yourself with passwords and handshakes.
You may also be asked about favouritism etc. This is expressly forbidden in Freemasonry and using your membership to gain advantage will see you quickly expelled. In the past a very small minority allegedly abused this, it tarnished our reputation and hence is something that we are keen to emphasise is totally contrary to what we are about.
It is worth pointing out that we are not a religion – and have members of many faiths and beliefs. You simply have to believe in a “supreme being” but you will never be asked to reveal, explain or justify your belief. In fact religious or political discussion is not allowed in our Lodges. Finally, the other criticism you may hear is “it’s men only”. In fact, there have been Women Masons for over a 100 years and there are both Women’s Lodges and Mixed Lodges. See http://www.hfaf.org/ and https://www.owf.org.uk/