It turns out, there are criteria for assessing this.
… Observers of cult phenomena … agree on four criteria to define a cult. The first is behavior control, i.e., monitoring of where you go and what you do. The second is information control, such as discouraging members from reading criticism of the group. The third is thought control, placing sharp limits on doctrinal questioning. The fourth is emotional control—using humiliation or guilt.
Mitch Horowitz adds three more:
… Financial control and extreme leadership.
Financial control translates into levying ruinous dues or fees, or effectively hiring members and placing them on stipends … a friend of mine—today a respected officer with a nonprofit organization—who recalls how his departure from the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church was complicated by the problem of a massive hole in his résumé
Problems with extremist leadership can be more difficult to spot.
Yet every coercive religious group harbors one telltale trait: untoward secrecy. As opposed to a cult, a religious culture ought to be as simple to enter or exit, for members or observers, as any free nation. Members should experience no impediment to relationships, ideas or travel, and the group's finances should be reasonably transparent. Its doctrine need not be conventional—but it should be knowable to outsiders
So, here’s 7 questions. I have no guidance for how you’re supposed to weight these, or judge where the borderline between religion and cult is:
- Does someone monitor and/or judge what you do?
- Are you discouraged from reading criticism of your group?
- Are you limited in what you may question?
- Is humiliation or guilt used?
- Is the financial or labor commitment a problem?
- Would others consider the leadership extreme?
- Is doctrine knowable to outsiders?