"...if you believe in it, it is a religion or perhaps 'the' religion; and if you do not care one way or another about it, it is a sect; but if you fear and hate it, it is a cult." ~ Leo Pfeffer
Though the above quote is meant to be humorous, it does speak to the subjective understandings we have toward various belief systems and organizations. As with many words, meanings differ depending on the source and time in history. Language evolves.
Cult originally comes from the word "cultus" which means a group that gives worship or reverence to a deity. Therefore, from the original form, "cult" is innocuous and can be assigned to any group of worshipers or religions. These days, however, the word "cult" is very confusing because many new meanings have evolved since the Latin meaning.
I see cults as being on a continuum with the best on one end and the worst at the other. I don't think the various meanings are disparate as they are indicative of how extreme a belief system is. For example, from the first meaning, the Catholic church could be considered a cult; however, these days, most people equate the word "cult" with a Jim Jones or Heaven's Gate type group. I put Protestant churches toward the benign end, then the Catholic church closer to the middle, then Baptists and Fundamentalists toward the less benign end, and the other hard cults at the harmful end.
Steve Hassan has written two books on the subject of cults and is the founder of "Freedom of Mind" site. He is a therapist who has worked extensively with cult members trying to free themselves from the grip of mind control. According to Steve Hassan, the definition of "cult" today comprises the following: behavioral, intellectual, thought, and emotional control. The extent to which these aspects are controlled is the extent to which members are controlled. The more control, the more toxic the group. According to Hassan, cults are not only religious-type groups, but can also be found in families, politics, education, therapy, and many other aspects of our "cult"-ure!
Where does your belief system fall on the continuum? In order to be objective, you need to put aside your fears. Fear is one of the most effective tools of mind control. Are you able to do that? Few people are... In fact, research shows that about 2/3rds of people adopt the belief system of their parents. (If there was a one-and-only "true"religion, it seems to me that this statistic would be influenced and significantly different.)
What kinds of controls have you experienced? And where? And how did they affect you?