You know about the Duggars, the evangelical Christian family whose 19 children catapulted them to fame through Discovery Health specials and TLC show, 19 Kids and Counting, and you know about Josh Duggar, the eldest son, who admitted last week to molesting several underage girls as a teen—including his own sisters.

You’ve seen some examinations of the dangerous, backwards logic that helped fuel that systematic and highly preventable sexual abuse, and some explorations of the culture of authority and fear promulgated by the Duggars’ uniquely patriarchal brand of Christianity.

But we’ve still just barely scratched the surface of the insane, terrifying homeschool cult that the Duggars and millions more across the country subscribe to. The bizarre horrors of the Advanced Training Institute, its founder Bill Gothard, and its many overpopulated families would take days to work through. Here’s what we’re dealing with.

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What is ATI?

ATI is a “Biblically based” homeschooling program that lets Christian families integrate their kids’ daily, hours-long moral learnings with just a dash of secularism. Its various pillars include doing exactly what’s expected “instantly and cheerfully,” not asking questions, strict adherence to patriarchal standards, and, of course, shielding yourselves from any influence or human that might lead you off the beaten (sometimes literally!) path.

The home-education program is just one of many bizarre offshoots of the Institute in Basic Life Principles, a group “dedicated to giving clear instruction and training on how to find success by following God’s principles found in Scripture.” Or rather, they’re dedicated assuming you buy its expansive back-catalogue or pay to attend one of its seminars, education programs, camps, youth academies, training sessions, what have you.

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To be officially enrolled in ATI, husband, wife, and child all have two seminars to attend: the Basic seminar and the Advanced seminar. Here, kids get to interact in their (gender-specific) peer groups, freeing them from distractions as they go through military training-lite (boys), learn to sew and sit quietly (girls), and otherwise practice hating who they are at their innermost, sin-addled core (everyone).

The ATI program itself, though, is made up of a series of “Wisdom Booklets” and (optional) supplementary packets that, theoretically, could make up the entirety of any good, righteous child’s education.

Though where some fundamentalist sects are content to leave their literal interpretations of scripture at the words on the on the page, ATI also follows the law of Bill Gothard—a man who, as far as the adherents of IBLP are concerned, might as well be god himself.

Who is Bill Gothard?

As the single, 80-year-old founder of of IBLP, Bill Gothard is the center of any ATI devotee’s universe. He’s currently on “indefinite administrative leave” after it got out that at least 34 women had come forward with claims of sexual harassment, for which he has remained unincarcerated and unpunished.

Gothard’s biggest days are behind him—in the 70s and 80s, the evangelical masses would pour into auditoriums by the tens of thousands to hear him speak. This despite the fact that, in 1980, his brother Steve Gothard was charged with a major sex scandal (in addition to money laundering) and was ultimately forced to step down. Gothard supposedly knew about the illicit activity and turned a blind eye, which led to him resigning as head for a grand total of three weeks.

Despite (or perhaps because of) Gothard’s strict gender hierarchy, he seems doomed to be an eternal, philandering, millionaire bachelor. IBLP is currently helping “reconcile” his sin, but his teachings remain fully endorsed.

What does ATI believe?

Put simply, whatever Bill Gothard tells them to believe. The lessons themselves consist of bizarre, forced attempts at inserting some type of traditional education into biblical passages. Which is where you get questions such as: “How did the ‘Socratic method’ of reasoning come from a sodomite manner of living?” “How can graphs help to visualize the consequences of lust?” And “How do prime numbers illustrate the principle of ‘one flesh’ in marriage?

To try to fit all the insane, absurd, and just plain factually inaccurate details of the ATI method in one post would be impossible. So we’ll be breaking it down into lots of posts. All week long.

The damage that this backwards, counterintuitive system of educating children can inflict is clear—now it’s just a matter of exposing it at the root.


Contact the author at ashley@gawker.com. Image by Jim Cooke.