Constructing a new definition of the word “cult.”

Art by Andrew Huang

The word cult is typically used to describe a group with an autonomous leader — an autocrat that may drive members to carry out senseless actions that have historically included mass-suicide, animal sacrifice and murder. The definition of a “cult” according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure, object, or idea.”

Because of stereotypes and false representation, organizations referred to as cults are subject to prejudice and can frighten people who are unaware of the ongoings within these groups. Consequently, they may become isolated and detached from society, creating an even greater negative speculation.

In Western culture, there has been some evidence of violent, unethical organizations, creating dramatised negative connotations of cults. The Manson family, for example, while not religiously motivated, were infamous in the late 60s for murdering nine people and painting the phrase “helter skelter” at the scene of the crimes in their victim’s blood. Another cult, Heaven’s Gate, became famous in 1997 after its 39 cult members killed themselves by drinking cyanide. It’s leaders, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, believed that their dreams were visions that told them they had been chosen to lead their followers to what they called “the spaceship”.

These examples have encouraged the prejudice of cults throughout history. One way to end this prejudice is by taking a look inside of cults. It may be revealed that a cult is peaceful and brings people together because of shared values that, in contrast to the Manson Family and Heaven’s Gate, does not harm society.

Palo Alto is the home to an organization called “The Magics,” who do not identify as a cult, but are brought together by a common belief: contributing to the common good and addressing social and environmental ills through valuescience. 

Although the interview was too vague to come up with a conclusive leader, there is a clear hierarchy amongst the Magics. Andrew, an interviewed member who did not want to be fully identified, said that he was the apprentice of Hillary Hug, who is separate from co-founder David Schrom.

Before joining the Magics, Andrew originally took a valuescience class at Stanford, which delved into the meaning of value — how to discover what one wants and then how to achieve it. The class taught that values are based upon science, and that through accurate predictions, one can better discern and reform their beliefs. For example, the class teaches about the importance of meditation, exercise, and the social and physical benefits to living life according to one’s personal values.

Along with practicing valuescience, members of the Magics come together in order to learn how to embrace full cooperation and self-responsibility; traits that ensure cooperative living and undisrupted practices. The twenty members of Magic live together in three adjacent houses in residential Palo Alto. The members range from ages 13 to 71, with the adolescents being the children of those already members in the Magics.

“At any given time, about a third of residents at Magic are international, a third to half are female, and a fourth to a third are people of color,”Andrew said.

The diversity of the Magics emphasizes that they do not confine to a certain type of ideal member, although they do require an application and interview process. They then consider and accept those who they deem to be a good fit for their group, and who are willing to commit to valuescience and work hard for a mentally and physically healthy lifestyle.

Andrew reflects on the benefits of living cooperatively with the Magics, “I’ve learned many things useful to living well: healthful habits for diet, sleep, exercise, and thought; cleaning, maintaining, repairing; health, cooperation, and stewardship,” he said. “I think many Magic residents appreciate living with people who care and are interested in good housemates.”

Palo Alto community may categorize The Magics to fit the general definition of a cult due to the lack of knowledge about the organization, however, this does not mean they should be perceived in a negative light.

The Magics are unique in the fact that their members live together and they all practice specific beliefs – valuescience and healthy living — that aim to benefit the lives of the members that join. It is a private organization, yet they host public events, have open dinner invitations at their living space and offer several community service opportunities to increase community involvement.

The Magics, who value the ideals of community and science, urge one another to live better. They keep their eyes wide open to political, social and economic worldviews that others make take in too blindly because they are accustomed to the values by which they were raised by.

“A critical part of my experience was their assistance in scrutinizing my worldview, much of which I’d acquired by accident of birth, with critical inquiry and skepticism normally lauded as a standard for scientific peer review,” Andrew said.

With an informed perspective, one can understand that not all groups that share the definition of a cults share the same negativity associated with the word. The unknown can be frightening, but gaining perspective on groups like the Magics helps to unify the diverse and unique population of Palo Alto.