25 Films That Do A Great Job Discussing Religion And The Trauma It Can Cause

Religion is a tricky subject to discuss, and an even trickier subject to discuss well.

Theodore Pellerin and Lucas Hedges lie in bed together

Not only are there dozens of major world religions with vastly different beliefs and tenets (with thousands of variations within each religion), but religion is also an incredibly personal thing. Islam is different from Hinduism, but even two Hindus can have INCREDIBLY different interpretations as to what they believe and how it impacts their daily lives. A Methodist is different from a Lutheran is different from a Baptist. Religion, as a whole, is just very complicated.

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And with such a wide range of religious beliefs and interpretations, it becomes obvious that not all religions, or religious people, are either good or bad.

Geraldine Viswanathan and Jack Kilmer talk at a skate park

There are some things about these long-held beliefs that are beautiful, build community, and foster creativity, while others are brutal, judgmental, and violent. Often, one person's religion carries both helpful and harmful attributes simultaneously. And that is how religious trauma is created. When a person grows up in a religious system, especially if they are young and the religion is not of their own choosing but selected for them by parents, they are often subject to harsh teachings or practices that can affect them detrimentally as they age. Thus, someone arrives in their teenage years or adulthood with lots of religious baggage to unpack.

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Andrew Garfield holds up communion bread while others pray

As someone who grew up in a very strict Evangelical Christian community where being gay was one of the worst sins imaginable, I have inevitably spent a lot of time thinking about religious trauma and unpacking it with my therapist. Which parts of religion do I want to keep with me? Which parts are detrimental to my mental health? How do I move forward in light of this? These are all very important questions with which millions of people the world over grapple. And yet, despite interactions with religion being so common, because it is so personal (and often controversial), it is typically shied away from in film.

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Clair Foy holds a child next to Rooney Mara

This December, however, two films that tackle religious trauma head-on have arrived at the megaplex. The Whale and Women Talking both examine harmful branches of the Christian faith, and the coping methods used by those mistreated in order to find healing. In light of these two films, I've compiled a list of 25 movies that examine religious trauma well. They cover a spectrum of religions and the trauma discussed varies greatly, but each seeks to unpack harm caused by religion in one way or another. I'm in no way saying that all religions are bad, but some certainly are, and here are some films that thoughtfully examine the more problematic versions of faith.

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1.1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture (2023)

Ed Oxford looks up in a church

Of the groups actively dealing with religious trauma (and there are many), one of the most notable is the LGBTQ+ community. Labeled as unnatural, sinful, and satanic by branches of the Christian church, queer people (especially those growing up in religious circles) have faced intense discrimination, often leading to depression, self-harm, and even suicide. Much of this is due to a handful of Bible verses that decry "homosexuality" as a sin. The documentary1946, however, examines the long line of Bible translations that have existed since the book (or scroll) was written thousands of years ago. Turns out, the word "homosexual" wasn't added to the Bible until 1946, when it was quickly snatched up by conservative politicians as a talking point to rally votes. The documentary, which premiered at DOC NYC, where it won the coveted Audience Award and became the most-watched film in the festival's history, examines this deadly mistranslation, pointing out how the church has, at times intentionally and at times accidentally, caused decades of heartache and death for the LGBTQ+ community. And while a documentary about translating Greek might seem a bit dull, 1946 is anything but. Queer filmmaker, Sharon "Rocky" Roggio, weaves her own story (and that of her religious father) together with a National Treasure-esque historical mystery and a horrifying political thriller to create one of the most engaging and informative documentaries I've ever seen. Not only is it highly watchable, but it has the potential to be one of the most influential films of the century as it seeks to prove that queerness and religion were never meant to be at odds. A must-watch for anyone trying to reconcile the two.

Release forthcoming.

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2.Boy Erased (2018)

Nicole Kidman holds Lucas Hedges's face in her hands

One of the most harmful practices utilized by Christians to "fix" queer people is conversion therapy camps, places of dubious scientific merit that religious parents ship their queer teens to in order to condition them into straightness. In his memoir, Boy Erased, Gerrard Conley recounts his experiences at one such camp his parents sent him to after he came out to them in high school. In the film adaptation, Lucas Hedges plays a version of Conley, while Nicole Kidman takes on the role of his Southern mother, who believes she's doing what's best for her son. While the traumas that Gerrard, and thousands of other teens, endured (and continue to endure) at these abusive institutions are horrifying, this is ultimately a beautiful story of both motherly love and self-acceptance. As a gay man who grew up in an extremely religious environment, this is one of the most accurate depictions of the experience I've seen on screen. Sadly, not all queer people growing up in Christian settings find such a happy ending.

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3.But I'm a Cheerleader (1999)

Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall lean their faces close together

And while we're on the topic of conversion therapy, here's another film that tackles the accursed institution. In this '90s black comedy, Megan (Natasha Lyonne) is shipped off by her parents when she's more interested in her fellow cheerleaders than her football-playing boyfriend. Surrounded by other gays, she quickly falls in love with Graham (Clea DuVall), which goes to show you that conversion therapy camps are not only ineffective, but they're also stupid. Put a bunch of horny gays together and you don't think people are gonna start pairing off? This movie also examines the "ex-gay" and "ex-ex-gay" movements in which gay people supposedly converted to heterosexuality, and then realized that's impossible and went back to being their lovely queer selves. While this is a fun gay comedy, conversion therapy is really no laughing matter, but sometimes we have to laugh to keep from crying.

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4.Carrie (1976)

Sissy Spacek and William Katt win Prom King and Queen

Religious trauma, especially that imparted on children by their parents, comes in many forms and is not limited exclusively to queer youth. In Carrie, the film adaptation of Stephen King's masterpiece, Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is raised by a religious mother, who, terrified of her own sexual urges, subjects Carrie to Puritanical rules and shames her for having a period and being interested in boys. The judgmental, and often misogynistic, obsession with purity (especially in girls), a vain of religious trauma, we see again and again as women are punished harshly for natural desires, while their male counterparts are often praised for theirs.

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5.The Crucible (1996)

Daniel Day-Lewis and Joan Allen stand outdoors

No trauma quite like being hanged. While Arthur Miller's play about the Salem witch trials was written as an allegory about McCarthyism and the US government's search for communists during the Cold War, it uses the Puritan religion as its symbol for a reason. Since religion is a faith-based, personal affair, it's impossible to know how devout anyone other than yourself truly is. However, many religions have aspects that involve judging others for how religious they are. This can lead to all kinds of sticky situations in which frenzied crowds can inflict trauma on others (especially outsiders, women, and those who are different) based on nothing but speculation and conjecture. In The Crucible, many innocent people WHO ARE CHRISTIANS, die at the hands of religious whims.

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6.The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)

Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield stand together in a crowd

While religion in its purest form can be harmful in and of itself, religion can also be wielded for many self-serving aims, leaving plenty of trauma in its wake. In last year's biopic about Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker (Andrew Garfield and Oscar winner Jessica Chastain), we see how an innocent faith turned into something much more sinister as Jim turned his religious fervor into a money-making empire, which he used to get rich through fraud. At the same time, the film examines the religious right's use of Evangelical Christianity to stir up Republican voters through scare tactics involving anti-gay talking points. Even the best attributes of religion can be turned into trauma-inducing hate by those using religion as a vehicle to manipulate others for their own gain.

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7.Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)

The Church of Scientology exterior

While I'm not exactly sure if Scientologists would classify themselves as a religion, their beliefs certainly have plenty of religious attributes to them. This 2015 documentary, based on journalist Lawrence Wright's book, examines the history of the new system of beliefs created by L. Ron Hubbard. With testimonies from a number of ex-members, the documentary dissects the tenets of Scientology and examines the harmful practices used to abuse and exploit members. The "religion", which has become increasingly popular with the Hollywood elite, has often been called a cult, and watching its rapid rise is a testament to just how easy it can be to launch a whole new power structure if you know how to entice people. If you enjoy this doc, might I also suggest Leah Remini's memoir, Troublemaker, which examines her time in Scientology and the horrifying methods they used to try and keep her in the system.

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8.Hala (2019)

Geraldine Viswanathan and Jack Kilmer stand outside lockers

Hala is the first film on this list focused specifically on Islam, a religion that also has countless sects and iterations. Based on her experiences growing up as a Pakistani-American, writer and director Minhal Baig tells the story of Hala (the delightful Geraldine Viswanathan), a high schooler coming to terms with her parents' Muslim beliefs. Based on her parents' religion, Hala is expected to follow strict rules regarding what she wears and eats, who she talks to, and how she spends her time. She's also expected to agree to an arranged marriage to a Muslim man, as determined by her father (who himself was a part of an arranged marriage). Even though her parents are loving and kind in many ways, the film shows how a religion that works well for one individual might be harmful if forced upon another. Hala's desire to spend time with a non-Muslim boy and wear sleeveless shirts meets harsh pushback from her parents, and it's only by disobeying their rules that she's able to determine who she is as a person.

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9.Higher Ground (2011)

Vera Farmiga wears a white dress

One particularly harmful aspect of many religious faiths is the hierarchy that places women over men. That's certainly something that Higher Ground, Vera Farmiga's directorial debut examines. Corinne (Farmiga, who also stars in the film), is a woman drawn into Christianity along with her husband after their child is saved from drowning. While Corinne initially finds peace in the community, she soon begins to question the doctrines that don't allow women to teach men and that force her to dress conservatively. The dynamics between men and women in Christianity, especially those around sexually satisfying your partner, bearing children, and interacting with other individuals of the opposite gender, are all interrogated here. While religion can serve certain purposes, it can also be harmful to women who are classified as subservient.

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10.Jesus Camp (2006)

A girl raises her hand and cries

BOY OH BOY is this film accurate. This was my childhood down to the Christian tracts distributed at the bowling alley and the Jesus/Reese's Peanut Butter Cups T-shirt. The documentary, which follows a number of children and parents involved at the Kids on Fire Christian summer camp, examines the extreme "indoctrination" (the camp's leader's word) of children on behalf of both Christianity and the Republican party (in this case, mostly George W. Bush). While the film focuses on the extent to which Evangelical Christians will go to make sure their kids believe steadfastly in (and will fight for) their religion, it also speaks more widely as to how all religions seek to ensure their children maintain their beliefs from a young age. While the film never examines how this may be potentially unhealthy for these kids later in life, lived experience (and the testimonies of many who grew up in these sorts of environments) speak to how forcing a religion on a child, rather than letting them come to it organically, can be traumatic. Also traumatic for me was having to listen to "JC in Da House."

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11.The Magdalene Sisters (2002)

Geraldine McEwan leads Nora-Jane Noone, Anne-Marie Duff, and Dorothy Duff down a hallway

While much of religious trauma comes subtly at the hands of well-meaning individuals, there are also many examples of extreme abuse by religious institutions. One particularly horrific program was the Magdalene asylums or laundries, homes that "fallen" women were imprisoned in by their families after they were deemed "sinful." Many of these women, who became pregnant out of wedlock, were impregnated by rape, and then forced to live in conditions where they were worked to the bone with little food in untenable living conditions. This film follows four women who were sent to such an establishment and documents the abuse they endured. It's a testament to what thousands of women endured because of harmful religious institutions and a warning never to let institutions such as this reopen.

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12.Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

John Hawkes teaches Elizabeth Olsen to fire a gun

While not based on actual events or specific religious cults, this film about a woman escaping a cult in the Catskill Mountains is a realistic depiction of how easy these types of cults (religious or otherwise) are to become ensnared in, and how difficult they are to escape. Elizabeth Olsen stars as Martha, who is brought into the cult by a friend and slowly initiated by the other women before being sexually abused by the men of the group, joining in on a series of burglaries, and even witnessing a murder. When Martha finally decides to leave, she is hounded and followed by members of the group attempting to coerce her into returning. While outside of mainstream religious circles, cults like this often exist on the fringes of religious society.

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13.One of Us (2017)

A group of Jewish men look out at New York City's skyline

After making Jesus Camp, documentary filmmakers, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, turned their lens to another world of intense religion: that of the New York City Hasidic Jewish community. Following three ex-Hasidic Jews, the film documents the intense branch of Judaism, its practices, and what led these members to leave the community. One of Us examines the sometimes harmful actions of the religion, including systemic abuse and ostracism of members who express religious doubt or leave the faith. Since films about Christianity are much more common in the US, this is a rare example of an interrogation of Judaism.

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14.Paris Is Burning (1990)

A drag queen walks before a table of judges

While this legendary documentary detailing New York's ballroom scene in the 1980s is not specifically about religion, in sharing the stories of several (mostly Black) members of the LGBTQ+ community, religious trauma certainly comes up. The seminal explanation of ball culture (much of which has been incorporated into modern hits like RuPaul's Drag Race), is a sometimes tragic, sometimes exuberant celebration of queer culture and the concept of "chosen family." Many of the documentary's subjects, however, came to New York because they were rejected by their religious families upon coming out as either gay or trans. While they find safety and solace in their "houses," they also face persecution from anti-LGBTQ+ religious groups as they try to live their authentic lives. The film is a beautiful tribute to the families queer people create for themselves if their own religious families won't accept them as they are.

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15.Philomena (2013)

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan sit next to each other at an airport

Like The Magdalene Sisters, Philomena also focuses on the abuse perpetuated at the Catholic laundries in the mid-1900s. In this more uplifting examination of the subject, we follow journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) who investigates the story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), a woman sent to an abusive laundry in the '50s when she becomes pregnant with a stranger. The nuns then separate her from her child and offer him up for adoption without her knowing. In the modern day, Sixsmith and Lee undertake a journey to discover what happened to the son stolen from her many years ago. Sex shaming, especially of women, knew no bounds at the time and continues in countless harmful ways to this day, even if practices such as Catholic laundries have been abandoned.

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16.Pray Away (2021)

Anti-gay protesters hold up flags

Pray Away examines in documentary form what Boy Erased and But, I'm a Cheerleader tackled in fictionalized versions. The documentary, from producer Ryan Murphy and directed by Kristine Stolakis, looks into the forces behind conversion therapy and the "ex-gay" movement, which rose to prominence with the creation of Exodus International, an organization that stated that if you focused enough on God, you could become straight. Obviously, this kind of thinking has been largely debunked as numerous ex-gays have become ex-ex-gays, realizing that sexuality is not something chosen or something that can be changed. The documentary looks at the countless lives that have been affected negatively by this religious lie, and how the ex-gay movement has been adopted in recent years.

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17.Prophet's Prey (2015)

A man with a bunch of Mormon women

While Mormonism, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a newer sect of Christianity, has caused plenty of religious trauma in its own right, the culty Fundamentalist branch of Mormonism (the version of the faith that encourages polygamy) is a whole other can of worms. In this documentary, Amy J. Berg, the documentarian behind Deliver Us From Evil, which details child molestation claims in the Catholic Church, follows Warren Jeffs, the head of the branch who is currently in jail for child sexual assault. Jeffs, who had over 70 wives, many of whom were minors and forced into "marriages" with Jeffs, practiced a version of Mormonism based on the original principles of the sect, harming dozens in the process with his sexist, racist, and violent views.

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18.Saint Maud (2019)

Morfydd Clark screams

As if we were going to make it through this whole article without at least one inclusion from A24, the indie studio known for prestige horror, much of which has a religious bent to it. In Saint Maud, we see religious evangelism driven to its most harmful extremes as Maud, a nurse and recent convert to Catholicism, goes to extreme lengths to convert the cancer patient she's caring for. The film also grapples with the guilt and subsequent self-harm that has been a part of the Catholic church since its early days and continues into the present. Maud, feeling immense guilt for her perceived sins, tortures herself as punishment and as a means to find purity. Often for those growing up in religious circles, self-inflicted punishment of both physical and psychological nature can be more dangerous than those inflicted upon them by others.

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19.Saved! (2004)

Mandy Moore leads worship at a church with Jena Malone and Elizabeth Thai on instruments

On this list of often sad, heartbreaking films, Saved! is a fun, satirical romp that skewers the hypocrisy of many churchgoing Bible-thumpers. Jena Malone plays Mary Cummings, an Evangelical high schooler attending a Christian school, who becomes pregnant while having sex with her ex-gay boyfriend. She is then ostracized by her peers for having sinned, with Mandy Moore playing the ridiculous Christian, Hilary Faye Stockard, in one of her best performances. Hilary attempts an exorcism on Mary, performs worship songs, and does a lot of public praying before she is inevitably toppled from her high horse. A "laugh to keep from crying" film, Saved! may hit too close to home for some, but is a delight nonetheless.

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20.Silence (2016)

Yosuke Kubozuka kneels down in front of Andrew Garfield on the cliffs of Japan

In the total opposite direction of Saved!, Martin Scorsese's Silence may be the most depressing film I've ever endured. Despite this being gorgeous, staring Hollywood A-listers, and receiving an 83% on Rotten Tomatoes, this recouped hardly any of its budget and garnered few awards. Why, you ask? Because it is over three hours long and nearly every second of that is unadulterated agony. Andrew Garfield (who did intense research and prep for the role) plays a 17th-century Catholic priest who travels from Portugal to the violently anti-Christian country of Japan in search of a mentor rumored to have strayed from the church. From the moment he arrives, until the film's final moments, we watch him witness dozens of local Japanese tortured and martyred for their faith and often on his behalf. They are burned alive, drowned, stabbed, crucified, beheaded, and bled out while hung upside down. Scorsese is unflinching in his depiction of this misery, and watching this film is torturous, which is the point of course. To watch the horrors perpetrated solely to force someone into or out of a religion clearly demonstrates the violent past that even the most humane religions (on paper) have orchestrated. While this type of violence may not be as prevalent in the US, it still happens in other parts of the world and is a great reminder to anyone that religion has never been a purely altruistic endeavor.

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21.Spotlight (2015)

Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Brian d'Arcy James sit around a desk

This Best Picture winner watches the Roman Catholic Church and the Boston Globe go head to head in a religion vs. journalism smackdown. The film, which examines the rampant, widespread child sex abuse by priests in the church, does so through the lens of the Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting. Spotlight not only follows the journalists who uncovered how religious leaders were allowed to repeatedly sexually assault children, but also demonstrates how the Vatican purposely covered up the horrific actions of its leaders to save face. The film stands as a reminder of the hypocrisy often alive and well in religious institutions and the ways that it can detrimentally impact the lives of those affected for decades.

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22.The Stoning of Soraya M. (2008)

Mozhan Marno gets her arms tied behind her

The patriarchal, often misogynistic, nature of religion can be utilized as a weapon against individuals even if the religion's tenets were not intended to be used as such. In this film, based on a true story, a man who wants to marry a second, 14-year-old wife without paying child support spreads rumors that his wife is committing adultery in order for her to be sentenced to death, leaving his path unchecked. The film clearly demonstrates how religion helps men maintain societal power and how they can wield that to gain what they desire, even if it means the death of an innocent woman. While the film is gruesome and graphic, it plainly paints a portrait of the horrors religion can cause at the hands of horrible men.

Available on DVD.

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23.Trembling Before G-d (2001)

A group of Jewish men huddle around a camera

While much of the religion and queerness dialogue has been focused on the relationship between Christianity and the LGBTQ+ community, gay people are born into every religion. An under-examined group is the queer members of the Orthodox Jewish community and how they reconcile their faith with their sexuality. In this documentary following a handful of queer Jews, filmmaker Sandi Simcha DuBowski takes a closer look at paths Jews must take in order to find queer love, whether that be inside or outside of Judaism. The film details types of Jewish conversion therapy, ostracism of gays within the Jewish community, and a new branch of Judaism that accepts queer members. While certainly in need of an update twenty years later, the film is a fascinating look into a community not often discussed.

Available on DVD.

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24.The Whale (2022)

Brendan Fraser sits in his kitchen

The first of the pair of new entrants onto this list, The Whale, while divisive in its depiction of fat people, does a fantastic job at showing the many harmful ways religious trauma can manifest itself. Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is an obese and reclusive gay man, who we come to find out has chosen binge eating as a way to numb his pain. Due to his relationship with a church (which I won't spoil), we find out that much of the sadness and heartache that has transpired in Charlie's life is a direct result of religion. While sometimes religious trauma is external and physical, it often leaves psychological wounds that may manifest themselves in all manner of unhealthy habits including unhealthy eating of myriad varieties.

Currently in theaters. Buy tickets at Fandango or Cinemark.

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25.Women Talking (2022)

Ben Whishaw, Rooney Mara, and Claire Foy sit on a rug looking into the distance

Lastly, we have this film, based on Miriam Toews' novel, which is loosely based on the Manitoba Mennonite Colony in Bolivia, in which it was discovered that the men were drugging the women with horse tranquilizers, raping them, and blaming the result on demons. The film, which stars a stellar ensemble cast including Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Ben Whishaw, and Jessie Buckley, depicts the women of the colony having an in-depth discussion of how to respond to the new information that they have been raped regularly for years. While the physical trauma at the hands of the community's religious leaders is obvious, the film also does a phenomenal job of depicting all the ways such physical trauma can contribute to mental trauma, and how living in such an insulated community can leave escape nearly impossible.

Currently in theaters. Buy tickets at Fandango or Cinemark.

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