As new religious movements continue to develop, people have become increasingly concerned with determining which are "legitimate" religions and which are dangerous cults.
The fact is there is no easy method of evaluating religions as dangerous cults. There are, however, a variety of issues one can look out for in a religion. If a movement displays many of these traits, particularly in extreme forms, the more likely it can be fairly classified as a dangerous cult.
However, most religions – including mainstream, widely accepted ones – show at least a few of these traits, particularly in moderate degree, so care needs to be taken before denouncing an unfamiliar belief system as a dangerous cult.
As a general rule of thumb, cultish behavior primarily revolves around how much control the leader or leadership of the group wields.
Central Authority In a Single, Charismatic Leader
Dangerous cults are commonly led by a single person whose authority cannot be easily challenged. These leaders are often accepted as either prophets gifted with divine insight unavailable to members or as gods themselves. Loyalty and adoration are often significantly directed toward the leader rather than some outside force.
Because of this extreme focus on the leader, dangerous cults are commonly led by their founders, and few dangerous cults survive the death of the founder, since he or she was the focus of adoration and loyalty.
Control Over Life and Death
Leaders of dangerous cults are so highly respected that members are willing to die for them or to kill themselves if the leader deems it necessary.
Commission of Felonies
Condoning the transgressions of major laws is one of the quickest ways a group can get labeled as a dangerous cult. Such behavior can include murder, suicide, rape (including statutory rape), kidnapping (holding members against their will), illegal stockpiling of weapons, and extortion.
Strict Control Over Lives of Members
Members have little control over their personal lives, with leaders telling them how they may dress, whom they can marry or with whom they can have sex, what jobs they may perform, and what they may own.
Separation From Contacts Outside the Group
Members are often encouraged or even required to limit or break off contact with non-members, including family and friends. This limits the chance of intervention from outsiders and members hearing negative arguments about their chosen religious path.
The group represents the only correct living, while everything outside of the group is dangerous and corrupting, reinforcing the notion that all are lost without the guidance and protection of the group.
Living in Communal Isolation
Dangerous cults often form communes where all property is owned by the group (often controlled by the leader). Members may need permission to leave the commune. This is an additional means of control, limiting members' knowledge of beliefs contrary to their own. Communes may also form because of a polarized worldview, and they may be reinforced and stocked with weapons in anticipation of a great battle between good and evil.
Large Required Donations
Many dangerous cults require members to give large sums of money to the organization in order to remain in good standing. If the group lives within a commune, members may be required to give up their material wealth to the group as a prerequisite for membership.
Conformity: Subjection of Individual Desires and Thoughts
Members are expected to always consider the group first and themselves second. Focusing on individual wants or needs can be seen as sinful, and independent thought, including criticism or questions regarding the group, is strongly subverted.
Punishment for Defection or Criticism
Dangerous cults warn of dire consequences for those that speak or act against the group, particularly for members who do so even in small ways. The threat may be supernatural, levied against all offenders by gods or spirits, or it may have more mundane sources, such as ex-communication from the group, blacklisting, physical punishments, humiliation, legal attacks, or general harassment. The result is members remaining inline not just because they believe in the group's message but also because they fear retaliation.
Group Is Small
Dangerous cults generally only have dozens or hundreds of members total. It is much more difficult to control large numbers of people to the degree necessary to be considered a dangerous cult.
It is particularly problematic to judge a group upon this criteria, as there are plenty of small, harmless religious movements in existence, and all movements start out small.