14 Celebrities You Didn't Know Were in Controversial Religions
From childhoods spent in cults to adults who've distanced themselves from a scandal-ridden church.
Religion is far from the most common thing for celebrities to speak about when they're promoting their movies, TV shows, or music, but in some cases, stars have opened up about their religious pasts and presents. Sometimes, this is to share how their faith has helped them in hard times or in their career. Sometimes, it's to reveal harrowing situations from their childhood and the way they were raised. The 14 celebrities below have all been involved in religions that could be considered controversial, whether that's because their church has been questioned for the way it's run or because they were part of a literal cult.
Of course, not all of these situations are equal, so take it from the celebrities themselves. Read on to see what these famous members and former members have had to say about their religions and beliefs.
Actor Rose McGowan grew up as part of Children of God, which is considered a cult. Her parents moved to Italy and lived as part of an Italian chapter of the organization, and McGowan was born in the country and spent her early years there. The group involved communal living and polygamous relationships. McGowan told People in 2011 that she fled with her dad, his "other wife," and siblings when they found out that adults were being encouraged to abuse children. "I was not molested because my dad was strong enough to realize that this hippie love had gone south," she said.
The Phoenix family
When they were children, actors Joaquin and River Phoenix and their family were also members of Children of God and traveled throughout South America and the Caribbean during their time in the cult. "I think my parents thought they'd found a community that shared their ideals," Joaquin told Playboy in 2014 (via Entertainment Tonight). "Cults rarely advertise themselves as such. It's usually someone saying, 'We're like-minded people. This is a community,' but I think the moment my parents realized there was something more to it, they got out."
Glenn Close was born into a wealthy family in Connecticut, but when she was seven years old, her parents joined the group Moral Re-Armament. Close and her siblings lived at the MRA headquarters in Switzerland for two years, while her father was working as a surgeon in Congo, including for dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
"You basically weren't allowed to do anything, or you were made to feel guilty about any unnatural desire," Close told The Hollywood Reporter in 2014. Close moved back to the U.S. when she was 15 and severed ties with the group entirely in her early 20s. "If you talk to anybody who was in a group that basically dictates how you're supposed to live and what you're supposed to say and how you're supposed to feel, from the time you're seven till the time you're 22, it has a profound impact on you."
Andrew Keegan, who appeared in teen movies like 10 Things I Hate About You and Camp Nowhere, started his own religious group called Full Circle in 2014. In 2015, Vulture wrote, the "actual theology of the group is tough to pin down, but it seems to loosely follow Hinduism" and "Sunday services begin with intention-setting, followed by a group-chanted 'We love you' to each congregant, not just Andrew. Everyone holds hands." In 2017, Keegan posted on Instagram that Full Circle was ending, but it does still exist in some form. The Full Circle Facebook page now describes it as a "spiritual and artistic environment within which people may develop their potential as reflective beings and connect with other members of the Los Angeles community" that hosts film screenings, yoga sessions, art shows, and more.
Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney has been involved with an organization called The Church of the Master Angels. CMA claims that members have been cured through the faith of everything from anxiety to HIV. The Daily Beast reported that participants can pay up to $10,000 for courses. Maroney has been photographed wearing a CMA necklace but defended herself against being in "a cult" in an August 2021 interview with Elle. She also said she hadn't been to a CMA workshop since the start of the pandemic. "I've always believed in God and more than just myself. But I'm not religious; I am not in a cult," Maroney said.
Chris Pratt is one of many celebrities who are or have been connected to the Hillsong Church, which is facing multiple scandals, including financial impropriety and accusations of abuse by pastors. The Christian megachurch was founded in Australia and now has churches all around the world. According to Refinery29, Pratt later became a member of Zoe Church, which was modeled on Hillsong.
The Guardians of the Galaxy star made headlines for his religious affiliation in 2019 when actor Elliot Page tweeted that Pratt was part of an "infamously anti-LGBTQ" church, as reported by Variety. Pratt responded in an Instagram post, "It has recently been suggested that I belong to a church which 'hates a certain group of people' and is 'infamously anti-LGBTQ.' Nothing could be further from the truth. I go to a church that opens their doors to absolutely everyone."
Justin and Hailey Bieber
Married couple Justin and Hailey Bieber have also both been associated with Hillsong, Zoe Church, and another similar church called Churchome. In January 2021, Jezebel reported that in response to an article claiming Justin studied to be a pastor at Hillsong, he made a denial on his Instagram Story, writing, "AND BTW HILLSONG IS NOT MY CHURCH.. FOR CLARITY I AM A PART OF CHURCHOME." Previously, GQ reported that the singer was baptized in an NBA player's bathtub by now-disgraced former Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz.
As for Hailey, she told Elle in 2o20 of getting involved with Hillsong, "It started to feel like my own little community of people who were also young and following God and just immersed in a church community."
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The Arquette family
The Arquette siblings—David, Rosanna, Alexis, Richmond, and Patricia—grew up in a Subud commune in Virginia. According to the World Subud Association, "The essence of Subud is a spiritual exercise or training called the 'latihan' which is open to people whatever their religion or belief." Through practicing, "a person may spontaneously experience inner changes that allow one to be more fully human, more sensitive to higher values and usually manifest themselves in a person's everyday pursuits."
"[Our parents] started it with a bunch of their friends, and they wanted kind of build this little utopian society," Patricia told Oprah Winfrey in 2011. "And David was born there on the commune. No electricity, no bathroom, I don't think there was running water even."
Michelle Pfeiffer got involved with breatharianism when she was 20 and had just moved to Los Angeles. Breatharians believe that people can survive on sunlight alone without food. In a 2013 interview with the Sunday Telegraph's Stella magazine (via HuffPost), the actor said she met a couple who "worked with weights and put people on diets. Their thing was vegetarianism." She continued, "They were very controlling. I wasn't living with them but I was there a lot and they were always telling me I needed to come more. I had to pay for all the time I was there, so it was financially very draining. They believed that people in their highest state were breatharian."
Pfeiffer said her ex-husband, Peter Horton, was researching cults for a film project, and it was only then that she realized: "I was in one."
Scientology is much more well known than some of the other religions and organizations listed here—and has many celeb members, including Tom Cruise and John Travolta—but it is very controversial. One celebrity Scientologist who's not as open about her involvement as others is Elisabeth Moss.
The Handmaid's Tale star hasn't spoken much publicly about being a member of the church, but in 2019 she told The Daily Beast, "Listen, it's a complicated thing because the things that I believe in, I can only speak to my personal experience and my personal beliefs. One of the things I believe in is freedom of speech. I believe we as humans should be able to critique things. I believe in freedom of the press. I believe in people being able to speak their own opinions. I don't ever want to take that away from anybody, because that actually is very important to me. At the same time, I should hope that people educate themselves for themselves and form their own opinion, as I have."
Kirstie Alley has opened up about being a Scientologist in interviews and on Celebrity Big Brother. "First of all, I just want everyone to know I have hundreds of friends who have come into Scientology and left Scientology. You're not shunned, you're not chased. All that stuff's bulls***," she said on The Howard Stern Show in 2013 (via New York Daily News), when talking about former Scientologist and anti-Scientology activist Leah Remini. (Remini and other former Scientologists have claimed that members are cut off from family and friends when they decide to leave the church and face retaliation if they speak out against it to the outside world.) "When you're generalizing and when your goal is to malign and to say things about an entire group…when you decide to blanket statement that Scientology is evil, you are my enemy."
When singer Toni Braxton was growing up, her family joined a Christian sect called Pillar of Truth, which was very strict. In her 2014 book, Unbreak My Heart: A Memoir, she wrote (via MSN), "I began connecting religion, God and church with judgment, anxiety and guilt… The times that bound us together became the ties that strangled us. Our family had fallen into religious extremism." According to Braxton, some of the rules of the church were not listening to pop music or celebrating holidays.
Kelsey Grammer has been a Christian Scientist in the past, but it's not clear whether or not he still considers himself one. Christian Science promotes healing through prayer rather than through medicine. According to the church's website, members "are always free to choose for themselves and their families the kind of healthcare that meets their needs. However, by practicing Christian Science, many have lived happy and healthy lives free of drugs and other systems of physical care."
Grammer told Hollywood.com in 2008, "I'm a Christian Scientist but I'm not a full blown practicing one. I actually visit doctors and I do take medication. But a lot of the principles of my approach to faith are rooted in that, which is pretty much mind over matter, if you want to reduce it to one thing."
Another famous Christian Scientist is Val Kilmer. In 2020, he explained to The New York Times that he initially planned to treat his throat cancer by moving away to work with a Christian Science guide in an attempt to cure himself through prayer. But, his children, who are not Christian Scientists, were against the idea, and Kilmer underwent surgery and chemotherapy. "I just didn't want to experience their fear, which was profound," he said. "I would've had to go away, and I just didn't want to be without them."