Freemasonry is a fraternal society dedicated to universal brotherhood. It is non-sectarian, pluralistic, respectful of all religions, and based on brotherly love, self-examination, good will, charity, and mutual assistance for the common good. It has existed for many centuries.
The roots of Freemasonry are ancient, but Freemasons were among the first significant organizations to foster what are called "esoteric" spiritual teachings in the 1700s in Europe, and then in America. They helped make Deism, Freemasonry and esoteric spiritual teachings accepted and popular. Mainstream Western philosophers of the 1700s followed that trend, and they also became fascinated with Eastern culture, religion, literature and philosophy, and that fascination began to reach its peak toward the end of the 1700s. In fact, it is what impelled the founding fathers to seek freedom from King George and his theocratic Church of England, and it is what caused them to be critical of the theocratic Christians in America.
The name Mason refers to craftsmen, specifically to stonemasons all the way back to those who built the ancient Temple of Solomon. However, since Masons have been slandered and even persecuted throughout their history by certain power-hungry "religious" groups, Freemasonry has a tradition of secrecy.
Even so, the secrecy tradition is not because Freemasonry is anything like a "cult." In fact, like Thomas Jefferson, Masons believe that one's spiritual and religious beliefs are a private matter and between each person and God, and are no one else's business. Moreover, Freemasonry has no single leader. It does not recruit members, nor does it coerce members in any way, and it does not claim to have knowledge of the only truth. Masons are free, and they can participate regularly, or sporadically, or rarely, as they choose. And they can also choose to end their membership if they wish, without any notice or complications.
Freemasonry is not necessarily "religious." While the belief in a God or a Supreme Being is a requirement for Masons, no single religion dominates. In fact, Masonic rules ban even the discussion of religion and politics, because Masons understand that they could very well disagree about such matters, and that would cause disharmony among members.
Freemasonry does not have any sort of global network, or even national network. There are many Masonic lodges, and they are not connected. In fact, there are some that very different than others in certain ways. And that's because Masons are free to follow their own sense of ethics, mutual respect, etc. And each lodge takes on the character of its members as a whole.
Contrary to what some uninformed critics claim, Masons are not members of "The Knights Templar." The Templars were an order of militant, medieval crusaders in the early 1300s, and modern Freemasonry did not become widespread or well known until three or four hundred years later.
Furthermore, Masons are not part of a so-called "Illumanati." The original Illuminati died out about eight years after the American Revolution of 1776. And even though there have been so-called revivals of so-called "Illuminati" groups, they have been fraudulent organizations led by impersonators and pretenders who were and are not really enlightened.
Now, as to the labeling of Freemasonry as "occultism," that is a complex issue, because the true meaning of the world "occult" means hidden. It is in some ways synonymous with the word "esoteric," which means "known only by a few." Neither term is negative, even though they have been grossly misunderstood and mislabeled by misguided, judgmental people. In fact, over the centuries they have succeeded in creating a pejorative connotation to the term "occult," and they have led people to believe that occult teachings have something to do with "satanism." Of course, that has been partly because there have been and are charlatans and pretenders who misuse the tools used in esoteric teachings to suit their own purposes, just as there are charlatans and pretenders who misuse the words in religious scriptures like the Bible to suit their own purposes. But, what can be bad is not the tools or the words, but those who misuse them in self-serving pursuits out of spiritual ignorance.
Some of the tools used in Freemasonry are the symbols used in the Judaic Kabbalah, known as The Secrets of the Torah (Old Testament), and also known as the Cabala and the Qabalah, and most of those symbols are also used in Astrology, Alchemy, and the Sacred Tarot. But all those systems of spiritual teaching are for self-examination and self-discovery. They are not religious, as we use the term, but they are actually designed to produce what true religion is supposed to produce, which is self-realization, unity, harmony, peace, freedom, love, and brotherhood.
Regarding the 32 Degrees of Freemasonry, they have to do with the 32 Paths of Wisdom depicted in the Tree of Life diagram used in the Qabalah. The Tree of Life is an ancient symbol, mentioned the books of Moses, David and Solomon. And, in John's book of Revelation, the Tree of Life is depicted as "baring twelve manner of fruits, and yields her fruit every month, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations." (Revelation 22:2) It is not a literal tree but a symbol for Wisdom, and the twelve "fruits" refer to the twelve signs of the Zodiac, and the leaves refer to the 32 healing paths of Wisdom in the diagram
Now, as for the patriotism of Masons, you should know that most Masonic meetings in America are preceded by the pledge of allegiance to the flag, and support for the U.S. Constitution is a central component of American Masonic values.
Eight signers of the American Declaration of Independence were Freemasons, including Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, and sixteen following presidents were also Freemasons. However, the only presidents who were Masons in the last 60 years were Gerald Ford and Harry Truman. Most Masons have learned to keep their Masonic membership to themselves.
In alphabetical order by last name, here is a partial list of other famous American Freemasons, which includes:
Irving Berlin, Composer;
Hugo L. Black, US Associate Justice;