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"Secret Society Buildings at Yale College", by Alice Donlevy ca. 1880. Pictured are: Psi Upsilon (Beta Chapter), 120 High Street. Left center: Skull & Bones (Russell Trust Association), 64 High Street. Right center: Delta Kappa Epsilon (Phi Chapter), east side of York Street, south of Elm Street. Bottom: Scroll and Key (Kingsley Trust Association), 490 College Street.
A secret society is a club or an organization whose activities, events, inner functioning, or membership are concealed from non-members. The society may or may not attempt to conceal its existence. The term usually excludes covert groups, such as intelligence agencies or guerrilla insurgencies, that hide their activities and memberships but maintain a public presence.
The exact qualifications for labeling a group as a secret society are disputed, but definitions generally rely on the degree to which the organization insists on secrecy, and might involve the retention and transmission of secret knowledge, the denial about membership or knowledge of the group, the creation of personal bonds between members of the organization, and the use of secret rites or rituals which solidify members of the group.
Anthropologically and historically, secret societies have been deeply interlinked with the concept of the Männerbund, the all-male "warrior-band" or "warrior-society" of pre-modern cultures (see H. Schurtz, Alterklassen und Männerbünde, Berlin, 1902; A. Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, Chicago, 1960).
A purported "family tree of secret societies" has been proposed, although it may not be comprehensive.
Alan Axelrod, author of the International Encyclopedia of Secret Societies and Fraternal Orders, defines a secret society as an organization that:
claims to own special secrets
shows a strong inclination to favor its members.
David V. Barrett, author of Secret Societies: From the Ancient and Arcane to the Modern and Clandestine, has used alternative terms to define what qualifies a secret society. He defined it as any group that possesses the following characteristics:
It has "carefully graded and progressed teachings".
Teachings are "available only to selected individuals".
Teachings lead to "hidden (and 'unique') truths".
Truths bring "personal benefits beyond the reach and even the understanding of the uninitiated."
Barrett goes on to say that "a further characteristic common to most of them is the practice of rituals which non-members are not permitted to observe, or even to know the existence of." Barrett's definition would rule out many organizations called secret societies; graded teaching is usually not part of the American college fraternities, the Carbonari, or the 19th century Know Nothings.
Confraternities in Nigeria are secret-society like student groups within higher education. The exact death toll of confraternity activities is unclear. One estimate in 2002 was that 250 people had been killed in campus cult-related murders in the previous decade, while the Exam Ethics Project lobby group estimated that 115 students and teachers had been killed between 1993 and 2003.
While their existence had been speculated for years, internet-based secret societies first became known to the public in 2012 when the secret society known as Cicada 3301 began recruiting from the public via internet-based puzzles. The goals of the society remain unknown, but it is believed that they are involved in cryptography and cryptocurrency.
The only secret society abolished and then legalized is that of the philomaths; it is now a legitimate academic association founded on a strict selection of its members.
Further, by abstaining from membership in secret societies. We will on no account tolerate our ministers and members joining or holding fellowship with secret societies, as, in the judgment of The Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Connection (Original Allegheny Conference), it is inconsistent with our duties to God to hold such relations.
"Jesus answered him, I spake openly to the world; I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort; and in secret have I said nothing" (John 18:20). "Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not" (Matt. 24:26).
"But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation" (Jas. 5:12).
Also see Lev. 5:4, 5; Isa. 29:15; Matt. 5:34-36; John 3:19, 20; 2 Cor. 4:1, 2; 6:14-18; Eph. 5:11, 12; 1 John 4:2, 3. 
^"The Constitution of the Republic of Poland". 1997-04-02. Article 13: Political parties and other organizations whose programs are based upon totalitarian methods and the modes of activity of nazism, fascism and communism, as well as those whose programs or activities sanction racial or national hatred, the application of violence for the purpose of obtaining power or to influence the State policy, or provide for the secrecy of their own structure or membership, shall be prohibited.
^Fletcher, Robert Samuel (1943). A History of Oberlin College from Its Foundation Through the Civil War. Oberlin College. "Revised codes were issued every few years, but not many important changes were made in them. Provisions with regard to the hours of 'athletic exercises and sport' were added in 1847. In the same revision there appeared for the first time the 'peculiar' Oberlin rule against secret societies. 'No student,' it runs, 'is permitted to join any secret society, or military company.'"