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published: 12/14/05
updated: 12/16/13

Angelina Jolie and Religion





Angelina Jolie at a UNHCR press conference in Islamabad, Pakistan, November 2005.

Angelina Jolie (b. 1975) is an American actress known for her exotic beauty, wild-child image, award-winning acting, and more recently, her globe-trotting humanitarian work with refugees, her growing international family, and her high-profile relationship with Brad Pitt.

This article explores the spiritual side of Angelina Jolie and her thoughts on God, religion, and her purpose in life.

A Search For Meaning: Brief Biography of Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie was born Angelina Jolie Voight on June 4, 1975 in Los Angeles, California. Her parents, actor Jon Voight and actress Marcheline Bertrand, divorced when she was a year old, after which he had a strained relationship with her father. The following year, Bertrand moved Angelina and her brother James to New York. The same year, Voight won an Oscar for Coming Home.





Jolie and her family moved back to Los Angeles ten years later. Jolie attended the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute from the age of 11 to 13, appearing in several stage productions. Later she attended Beverly Hills High School, where she was shunned due to her comparatively poor clothes and odd looks.

Although she had been a joyful child, Jolie became a troubled and intense young woman. She has openly spoken of her teenage self-loathing, which led to cutting herself with knives, early and intense sexual experience (her boyfriend moved in with her at 15), her fascination with death (she planned a career as a funeral director in her teens), thoughts of suicide, and undefined feelings of frustration. Looking back on this period in 2003, she explained:

I used to think I was unstable, because I had this thirst for something. I could never figure out what it was. I couldn't sleep at night, and I always wanted to be somewhere else, and I have a window tattooed, this little box, and it's because wherever I was, I wanted to be somewhere else. And, I always saw myself, wherever I was in life, staring out the window. {1}

At 16, the relationship with her boyfriend ended. She moved into an apartment near home and went back to the theatre. She appeared in several student films directed by her brother James Haven and soon also became a model, working in Los Angeles, New York and London and appearing in music videos.


Angelina Jolie with her first husband Jonny Lee Miller (1995).

She landed her first film role in 1993, playing a seductive half-robot in Cyborg 2. Her next film was Hackers (1995), in which she met her first husband, British actor Jonny Lee Miller. On March 28, 1996 she married Miller wearing black leather pants and a white shirt painted with his name in her blood.

Critical recognition of Jolie's acting talent first came in the television biopic George Wallace (1997), in which she played the wife of the title character. She received both a Golden Globe and an Emmy nomination. Her next role was in Gia (1997), an emotional TV biopic of Gia Carangi, a 1970s self-destructive, lesbian supermodel who died of AIDS.


Angelina Jolie in her Oscar-winning role in Girl, Interrupted (1999).

Especially after the emotional depth of the latter part, she became deeply troubled again. She and Miller divorced on February 3, 1999, and she lived alone in New York for a time trying to figure herself out and attending film classes at NYU.

Angelina's next two major film roles paralleled her feelings at the time. In Girl, Interrupted (1999), she played a an institutionalized sociopath who was overtly sexual, charismatically attractive, self-destructive, cruelly honest, and always yearning to really feel something. She won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance.

In Pushing Tin (1999), Jolie played the dark and seductive wife of Billy Bob Thornton, two decades her senior. The two fell in love offscreen and married in Las Vegas on May 5, 2000.


Angelina and Billy Bob at the premiere of Original Sin, 7/31/01.

Theirs was a very intense and very public marriage in which both frequently declared their intense passion for each other, referred almost constantly to their sex life (to NBC's Brian Williams: "He's about five blocks away, and I'm having trouble being with you" {2}), and famously wore vials of one another's blood.

Ann [Curry]. And why do you wear this?
Angelina: Because it's my husband's blood.
Ann: Which says to you what? Which means what to you?
Angelina: Which is beautiful to me, you know? Some people like diamonds around their necks or things like that. I think that's beautiful. And it makes me - it's his life. {3}

Angelina stated in interviews that she had finally found happiness and safety with Billy Bob Thornton, and that her darker days were behind her. In the same interview, she said:

Angelina: For the first time I've been happy.
Ann: Why weren't you safe and happy before?
Angelina: I don't know. Because if I didn't have my work, if I hadn't met Billy, I absolutely would not be here today.

Putting her experience in general terms, she described the key to happiness this way:

Love one person, take care of them until you die. You know, raise kids. Have a good life. Be a good friend. And try to be completely who you are. And figure out what you personally love. And like go after it with everything you've got no matter how much it takes.

Angelina with her son Maddox.

Around this time, Jolie also became involved in the plight of refugees, inspired in large part by her visit to Cambodia for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and the humanitarian-themed film Beyond Borders (2003). Jolie became a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in 2001, and since then has frequently traveled to remote countries to draw attention to the plight of refugees.

And with Thornton, Jolie adopted an orphan from Cambodia, Maddox Chivan Jolie, who was born on August 5, 2001. Like many new parents, she has said that the experience has dramatically changed her life:

It's an amazing thing to take care of a child and to have a child trust you and love you. That makes me feel like I somehow have a purpose. I didn't know what I would be like as a parent. So, I've learned that I love being a mom. If he's OK, if he's healthy, nothing else matters to me. And, that's just such a clarity. I never knew. {11}

Thornton did not share in Jolie's new interests with the same enthusiasm, and the new soon grew apart. Jolie and Thornton divorced on May 27, 2003, and Jolie has sole custody of Maddox. Also in 2003, she published Notes from My Travels, a collection of journal entries chronicling her early work with the UN.

In July 2005, Jolie became the third actress to command a fee of $20 million per movie with the action-comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith, costarring Brad Pitt. During filming, she became the center of a major Hollywood scandal in which she was accused of having an affair with Brad Pitt and breaking up his marriage to actress Jennifer Aniston.

Jolie has adamantly denied these claims, insisting, "To be intimate with a married man, when my own father cheated on my mother, is not something I could forgive. I could not look at myself in the morning, if I did that." (She has said elsewhere, "I wouldn't be attracted to a man who would cheat on his wife.")

She has concluded, "People will say what they want to say, and it's okay. And my life will go on, and I need to focus on my life. So, do I need to defend that I’m a decent woman? I sure hope I don't. I know I am." {4}

Brad Pitt has also firmly denied any wrongdoing while he was still married. But the couple were spotted together soon after his separation and continue to be in a serious relationship. No declarations of passion or red-carpet groping this time, though: Angelina rarely speaks of her relationship with him and the two still tend to avoid contact in public appearances.

However, Pitt was present when Angelina adopted her second child from Ethiopia, Zahara Marley Jolie, and he legally adopted both her children on January 19, 2006. Maddox and Zahara have since had the legal surname Jolie-Pitt. On May 27, 2006, Jolie and Pitt became biological parents for the first time with the birth of a daughter named Shiloh Nouvel Jolie-Pitt.


Angelina and Brad in Haiti, January 14, 2006. © People

Brad Pitt has also expressed a strong interest in humanitarian work since meeting Angelina. Since their relationship began, he has journeyed to Africa alone on a humanitarian trip, built houses for victims of Hurricane Katrina, and accompanied Angelina to Pakistan and a variety of other needy areas.

In early 2006, the couple visited a school in Haiti, where Jolie allowed People magazine to print the first picture of her visibly pregnant (left) in exchange for a $500,000 donation to the charitable organization Yéle Haïti.

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Angelina and Brad explore Ho Chi Minh City on November 24, 2006.

In November 2006, Jolie and Pitt began work on the film A Mighty Heart, based on the 2003 book of the same name by Mariane Pearl. The book chronicles the life and death of the author's husband, Daniel Pearl, a journalist who was kidnapped by terrorists in Pakistan and later beheaded on camera. Jolie is starring as Mariane Pearl; Pitt's Plan B production company is producing. Of the socially-conscious film Angelina told the Times of India,

We need to tell the story of Daniel Pearl and the reason we are making this film is because it’s very important to have a dialogue between the two cultures.

While based in Pune, India, for the filming, the couple and their children traveled throughout the country and Southeast Asia. They spent Thanksgiving 2006 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where they toured the town on a scooter, visited an orphanage, and dined in a former temple. This may become a family tradition - the previous Thankgiving was spent aiding earthquake victims in Pakistan.

Angelina Jolie on Religion & the Meaning of Life

Angelina Jolie does not identify herself with any single religion, nor has she declared herself an atheist (contrary to the claims of some atheist websites {5}). The subject of religion has not often come up in her interviews, so her beliefs about such things as God and the afterlife are not well documented.

The most direct statement Jolie is known to have made on the subject was reported by the website A.V. Club (associated with the online magazine The Onion), which asked a number of celebrities the question, "Is there a God?" and published the answers from 52 of them in a September 2000 feature story. Angelina Jolie gave the following answer:

Hmm... For some people. I hope so, for them. For the people who believe in it, I hope so. There doesn't need to be a God for me. There's something in people that's spiritual, that's godlike. I don't feel like doing things just because people say things, but I also don't really know if it's better to just not believe in anything, either. {6}

So at least in 2000, Angelina Jolie had no specific religious beliefs, didn't personally feel the need for a God and disliked authority-based religion, but was not willing to go so far as atheism and expressed hope that there might be a God for the sake of those who dedicate their lives to religious belief.

Angelina Jolie regards Buddhism as an important part of her son's Cambodian heritage and considers him a Buddhist. She has said, "We spend a lot of time [at our house in Cambodia]. And I’m learning about Buddhism and I’m teaching him what I can. He spent a lot of time in temples with monks and he's learning." {7}

Shortly after adopting Maddox, Angelina tattooed a prayer for protection for him on her upper back in Khmer script (left). She said, "I asked for it to be done in Buddhist Sanskrit, which is part of (Maddox's) history." {8}

Angelina Jolie in Pakistan
Jolie with earthquake survivors in Pakistan, November 2005.

Some have speculated that Angelina Jolie is now a Buddhist (rumor also has it that Angelina and Brad had a Buddhist marriage ceremony), but she has not indicated a commitment to Buddhism more than any other faith. In fact, she seems to take a United-Nations inspired approach to her family, and perhaps, to her religion. She is reported as saying,

"I have a Buddhist son and I'd like a Christian and a Muslim child, too." {9}

Aside from any particular religion, Angelina Jolie has given a great deal of thought to the meaning of life, something she has been searching for with great intensity since childhood, as well as considerations of morality.

Having first found happiness in acting, and then in her marriage to Billy Bob, Angelina Jolie now finds meaning and contentment in her children and her ongoing work with refugees.

Question: Have you learned any important lessons since you became an ambassador, and if so what are they?
Angelina: I've become a better human being. I've learned the strength of the human spirit. I see different aid workers in camps helping each other from everywhere - people who have come together from all over the world to help people in Africa. It's changed my view of what is important. I'm not so concerned with things I used to be so concerned with. I care now that my son is healthy. I feel that I'm of some use to other people in the world. {10}


I've been traveling for the last three years and the last two I've been goodwill ambassador. I initially set out because I wanted to learn about what’s going on in the world and wanted to become a better person and simply educate myself. When I found I could be useful in communicating what I had learned and maybe inspire other people to educate themselves and do some good, it made me so happy and gave me a sense of purpose.

Angelina Jolie in a refugees camp in Tanzania on behalf of the UNHCR.
I’ve learned more about life from refugees and people that are the survivors from around the world than anywhere else. I admire them. I’ve learned about family and just respect them so much and have seen so many horrible things and seen so much survival and so much beauty in these people. So they’ve changed my life and I hope to keep working with them and do what I can to raise awareness. {12}

I want to fill my mind with valid issues in the world. I'd like there to be less refugees. I'd like all girls to go to school. That's what we need to be thinking about, and working on making our own families good and strong and our own kids happy. Not to cloud our minds with things that don't matter." {13}

"I've been crazy in my life, and I've been wild in my life, I've never been a bad person. I've never intentionally hurt other people just to hurt them. And I'm trying to do a lot of good things with my life." {14}

I love films, but I'm more aware of being a parent now and I'm more aware of the world now. I spend as much time as I can in a day trying to educate myself and travel whenever I possibly can. I'm grateful to be able to live in both. It's increasingly harder to come back into a world that is focused on material possessions...when you've just spent time doing something you feel is much more important. {15}

Sources

  1. ABC "20/20," July 11, 2003.
  2. "The Today Show," June 29, 2001.
  3. "Dateline," June 12, 2001.
  4. "The Today Show," June 8, 2005.
  5. e.g. Famous Non-Believers; Freedom from Religion Foundation.
  6. AV Club, September 6, 2000.
  7. AsianConnections.com. August 11, 2003.
  8. USATODAY.com, July 17, 2003.
  9. The Sun, December 29, 2004.
  10. Digital Freedom Network online chat, June 24, 2003.
  11. 20/20, July 11, 2003.
  12. Source unknown.
  13. "The Today Show," June 8, 2005.
  14. ABC "20/20," July 11, 2003.
  15. "Oprah," April 23, 2003.
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