(Adapted from the Grand Lodge of Texas Web site)
Symbolic, Craft, or Blue Lodge Masonry has three degrees: Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason. Originally, Masonic degrees varied in number, type, and content until the three-degree system of today evolved and was firmly in place about 1760 A.D.
A "degree" is a drama in which a newcomer to Masonry, the candidate, is made to play a key part. These dramas have several characteristics and are progressive in nature, that is, they build on each other. These dramas are enacted for the purpose of moral instruction. Only Masons who have already attained a certain degree are allowed to participate or be present during the conferring of that degree. A unique characteristic of each Masonic degree is an "obligation" taken by the candidate. The obligation is an oath taken for the purpose of instructing the candidate in his Masonic duty.
The three degrees have a biblical basis. Much biblical imagery is used in the ritual of the degrees. The central image is that of the building of King Solomon's Temple, as meticulously described for us in the Old Testament books of I Kings and II Chronicles. As the building of the Temple progressed stage-by-stage, so the Freemason constructs his own personal moral edifice degree-by-degree.
There is some memory work the candidate must learn after each degree is conferred upon him in order to progress to the next stage. He has a set amount of time to learn the catechism, that is, a set of questions and answers, and to recite them before the lodge members at a lodge meeting. This process continues until all three degrees have been completed.
Masonry is not a religion. There is nothing in Freemasonry to interfere with a man's religious life. Persons of all faiths and Christian denominations are a part of the worldwide Masonic fraternity. Religion and politics are two subjects not allowed to be discussed when a lodge is in session.