|Jonestown, post punch-line|
Characteristics of a cult (source):
The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law. Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished. Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s). The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth). The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar for the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity). The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society. The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations). The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members' participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities). The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt iin order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion. Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group. The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members. The group is preoccupied with making money. Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities. Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members. The most loyal members (the "true believers") feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.
The second bullet regarding "questioning" is pivotal.
Suppose I, as a Christian, proposed that we simplify the Bible by using only the books of Exodus and Matthew from the traditional, 72 book Bible. I might get ridiculed and some people would shun me but it seems very unlikely that church leaders would put a "hit" out on me.
Suppose a member of Islam suggested that the Koran be subjected to some gene therapy to excise the toxic DNA that initiates cancer. Nothing drastic, maybe a reinterpretation of 1/2% of the text. He would have change his name and move to Minot, North Dakota to avoid the fatwa(s) against him.
This is a slippery slope because labeling any "religion" as a cult is the first step to removing some of the Constitutional protections that limit the government's powers. Labeling metastasizing cults as such, however, guts the argument that "All religions are all really the same under the hood."