Everyone knows that the Duggars are extremely religious, but the strict rules that they follow don’t exactly align with mainstream Christianity — instead, they’re followers of teachings from the Institute in Basic Life Principles, a non-denominational religious organization. All the kids in the Duggar household (and the Bates)) are homeschooled using the ATI curriculum created by IBLP. And sure, you’re probably staring at the screen right now thinking, “That’s a lot of acronyms. What do they have to do with anything?”, but both IBLP and ATI are controversial for many reasons. Its founder, Bill Gothard, was accused of allegedly sexually assaulting more than 30 women back in 2014. And many former members who grew up affiliated with IBLP, much like the Duggars, have spoken out against the organization, accusing it of silencing sexual abuse victims, brainwashing, and, well, being cult-like.
It’s a little surprising to fans of the Duggars since the reality TV family always looks so happy and wholesome on their show Counting On or in social media photos. But there’s a dark side lurking amongst the family, and it’s more than just the Josh Duggar molestation scandal. The family is so beloved by fans that they’ve ignited interest in ATI teachings from families who want to be just like their favorite TV family. Unfortunately, after doing some digging into what ATI teaches, as well as hearing stories from former members, the reality proves it’s anything but wholesome.
What does ATI teach?
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The ATI homeschooling program is a system that involves workbooks, quizzes, and other resources designed to teach a curriculum that’s enriched with “biblical life principles.” In other words, everything ATI teaches is derived directly from scripture, meaning that, regardless if the subject is science, linguistics, or history, the Bible is always the focus. This doesn’t really sound all that bad at first, but former members who have since denounced ATI have spoken out about the teachings being weird, archaic, and illogical. According to Gawker, who managed to scan and upload pages out of an ATI workbook, the program teaches such asinine things as “semen causes cancer.” According to ATI, God uses cancer and other illnesses as curses on people who don’t follow his word, particularly when it comes to casual or premarital sex. However, once a woman has a husband, she’s magically “immune” from such diseases.
“When you look at the ATI curriculum it’s just so crazy,” former ATI follower Nicholas Ducote said in 2015. “A lot of ATI’s ideas about disease and spirituality are that it’s kind of two sides of the same coin. Your spiritual problems cause your physical problems. They believe cancer is a punitive condition for a lot of people, that God will curse you with cancer.”
What’s the tie between ATI and sexual assault?
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Possibly the most upsetting thing about IBLP is how it counsels those who’ve been sexually abused. According to an actual page from an ATI handout, the institute advises counselors to ask victims, “Why did God let [the abuse] happen?” Some examples of answers to this question are “immodest dress,” “indecent exposure,” and “being evil with friends.” The handout goes on to advise victims to be fortunate of their abuse because they are now more “spiritually powerful.” The handout states, “If you had to choose…no physical abuse or more mighty in spirit, which would you choose?”
The “victim blame-y” parts of ATI’s teachings also leave a negative effect on young women who are forced to see the world through a black and white prism where their bodies are constantly at a threat for rape for simply not dressing modestly. And if they do? Whoops, it’s their fault.
“Those strict guidelines haunted me,” former ATI follower and author Sara Jones wrote. “Because of the heavy emphasis on eye traps and dressing ‘modestly,’ I was highly aware of myself as a sexual temptation to all men at all times. Every time I ventured into public, I risked inciting a man to violent lust and rape.” Considering Josh was accused of molesting his sisters, it makes you realize why the Duggars initially tried to keep it a secret. “If a woman doesn’t cry out when she’s raped, God holds her equally guilty with her attacker,” Bill has stated in one of his Wisdom Books.
ATI’s views on courting aren’t quite as wholesome as the Duggars portray it.
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The Duggars have always maintained that courting is simply a way for young people “to date with the intent of marriage.” There is a long list of rules for it, too. For one, a couple who’s courting isn’t allowed to be alone, or hug, or even kiss. Michelle Duggar has said that this is to keep the couple pure with the lord, and it’s a generic belief that a lot of religious people have. However, the way ATI enforces purity and abstinence forgoes the usual “don’t have sex before you marry.”
“[Courtship] sets a standard and proclaims that you are somehow shameful if you cannot keep it,” a former ATI follower wrote. “You are considered damaged goods if you have fallen in love and had your heart broken… This has got to be the most bogus and the most damaging teaching of this entire movement. Love doesn’t work that way.” Apparently, not even “crushes” are allowed. “So, the ideal is that you are not even supposed to — if you are a teenager — I’m not even supposed to have a crush on you,” Nicholas said. “If I have a crush on you, I am giving you a literal piece of my heart, and the more pieces of my heart I give to girls before I marry, the less of my heart I will have to give to my wife.”
But probably the darkest thing about ATI is its founder, Bill.
In 2014, Bill was put on administrative leave after several female employees came forward and accused the founder of alleged sexual harassment. No criminal charges were filed. To date, 34 women and two men have accused him of alleged sexual harassment. Although he hasn’t been charged, several women have come forward to describe their experiences with Bill. A woman named “Leigh” (her name was changed to protect her identity) revealed in 2015 that, while working for Bill, she was forced to work grueling long hours without pay, while Bill would behave inappropriately with her, like “holding hands, playing footsies, stroking the hair and that type of unwanted physical affection.” Keep in mind, Bill was a man in his 70s and the woman quoted in the article was in her early 20s. She later went on to say that she and Bill visited the Duggars in 2006 and were “holding hands” in full view of the reality TV family who, according to her, said nothing.
According to the lawsuit filed by victims in 2014, Bill would also “select girls based on how they looked and tell them that it was God’s will for them to come work for him.” Jennifer Spurlock, one of the many women who accused him of alleged harassment, said her abuse began when she was still a teenager. “Mr. Gothard was just staring right at me, so much so that other girls would say ‘you’re so lucky, he couldn’t take his eyes off of you,’” she said at the time. “We were referred to as ‘Gothard’s girls.’ People knew. It was actually a privilege.”
Joy Simmons, another person who accused Bill of alleged assault, said the abuse started after she was sent to a counseling center after being abused by another man affiliated with IBLP. “We were isolated. No friends, no way out, no education. We were pretty stuck,” she said in 2016. “Gothard said since I didn’t cry out, I was just as guilty as the guy who assaulted me.”
Bill and IBLP still have close ties to the Duggars.
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Despite all the allegations of sexual harassment running amok around Bill, that didn’t stop the Duggars from throwing their support behind him. In 2012, when Anna Duggar’s sister Priscilla married David Waller, the ATI administrator, Bill was a wedding guest and even gave a 10-minute speech there. The whole thing was filmed for 19 Kids and Counting, but producers conveniently cut him out of the episode. As recently as this year, the Duggars were still attending and making speeches at ATI conferences. The family still hasn’t spoken out about Bill’s alleged abuses, nor have they responded to any critcs of the organization they’re so closely tied to — and honestly, their silence speaks louder than words.