Bill Gothard Claims to have Secret Cure for Mental Illness
CW: Contains spiritually abusive theology
By M. K. Wiley, H. A. Editorial Team
Total Outreach for Christ Ministries in Little Rock, AR, hosted Bill Gothard for a talk they titled “Do you want SUCCESS? Bill Gothard ministers a word concerning Journeying to Love.” (The talk can be viewed in full on the ministry’s website. Click on “on demand video” to find the video.) I watched the live-stream last week, and although it has been over 10 years since I’ve seen Gothard speak, I found myself surprised that a man publicly accused of sexual abuses against women, some of them minors at the time, is still apparently in the business of sharing his “basic principles.”
He and his former “ministry,” itself basically a money-making scam for Evangelical fundamentalist homeschooling families, ATI/IBLP (Advanced Training Institute/Institute in Basic Life Principles), are facing a lawsuit from a number of women and men who worked for him, many while quite young, when his ministry was thriving some 15 years ago.
So I’m surprised that any church or ministry is still willing to give credence to anything this 81-year-old man has to say.
The term brainwashing comes immediately to mind. Gothard is a persuasive, almost didactic speaker. In this particular talk, he is touting his new book. It seems he had samples of the book at Total Outreach’s dinner & speech. And of course a new book means the possibility of financial gain. He sits at the head table with the other speakers and, one assumes, leaders of this organization.
The gentleman who introduces him, perhaps a leader at Total Outreach, emphasizes that he has attended both ATI/IBLP’s The Basic Seminar and The Advanced Seminar; he states that he wishes he’d been taught the principles touted in Gothard’s seminars as a child. A chill goes up my spine, because I was taught Gothard’s ideas as a child, and no good ever came of it, only an intense weight of guilt that has contributed, over the past 15 years or so, to my struggles with survivor’s guilt and PTSD. Gothard takes the podium as the keynote speaker. He justifies himself throughout the evening, without ever bringing up the charges that are currently being leveled against him. Gothard begins by talking about how he thought he had the basics of Biblical teachings covered with previous seminars, but then realized “in recent years” that the Lord had more to teach him. Living out the true Christian life is simpler than he has understood before. Meditation, he emphasizes, is key.
Gothard doesn’t have a lot of new things to say in his “new” talk. Most of it sounds familiar to those of us who ever were enmeshed in his prior organization. The Four Fears that he outlines are, he claims, innate to every human experience, and are at the root of every mental illness. He claims to be able to treat mental illness effectively while heavily implying that most children of Christian parents, and perhaps, I think, he is referring to people like me – children of parents who once adhered to his cult’s teachings – who leave the church are also probably mentally ill. This correlation is disturbing. In some cases, of course, he’s right. But for many, the depression, anxiety, OCD or PTSD diagnoses can be directly traced back to a traumatizing religious past.
Gothard makes no mention of such an idea. Instead, he disregards psychology almost entirely. This is something of a contradiction, since – without using a professional’s name – Gothard claims that, “a psychiatric professor… at UCLA… made a discovery that has incredible implication for believers… I mean he gets your serotonin up through [good food] and sunlight…” – and, Gothard insists, the true way to conquer mental illness is through “light.” More powerful than sunlight, Gothard informs his audience, is “The Word of God.” In other words, Gothard is equating the effects of sunlight on individuals with conditions like SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) with reading and studying the Bible.
Like most who claim to be of Evangelical Christian faith, Gothard believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible, but just as in his ATI days, he tends to pick verses at random that seem to have some relation to his current ideas. His dialogue involves using the word “serotonin” a lot, but his statements seem poorly informed. For example, he seems to argue that “young people” are leaving the Christian Church in high rates in recent years due to mental illness; but there’s a cure for that in the Bible he claims: “the serotonin… it’s called the happy hormone! If we’re happy we’re… rejoicing… but if our serotonin gets low… we have thoughts of suicide, mental problems… because it’s involuntary.” He equates high serotonin levels with happiness, and indicates that “real” Christians have high serotonin levels. But, he says, those levels can drop if we don’t meditate constantly. He insists: “no science discredits this… and [it] has more implication for Christians than for anyone else.”
Gothard describes young people growing up “in the faith” only to leave it, and he seamlessly ties this into the idea of depression – and the disbelief and questioning that leads to “atheism” in adult children “raised in the church.” He explains a definition for our “inner reins” as our intestinal tract. He suggests some pretty weird ideas that don’t seem at all scientifically sound. He mixes in a little pop psychology: he says that serotonin is the major neurotransmitter that effects emotions, health, and behavior, adding that sensual desires come from one’s “reins.” Poor decisions or “sins” like anger, Gothard claims (and one wonders, is he also thinking of sexual misbehavior?) “…are spontaneous responses from our reins. It even has its own, its own, its own system. The intric [Is he trying to say “central”? I’m not certain] nervous system… it’s a totally separate system. But… most of those signals [from our heart/reins] go to our brains… now let me tell you why this is so important… about a month ago I… heard from a family from Canada….” Hold up. Did he just say our hearts and intestines control our brains? Because that’s not a scientifically accurate statement. At all.
He goes on to describe a 22-year-old Canadian young woman who apparently couldn’t sleep, had deep depression, and other possible symptoms. Gothard claims she was “speaking incoherently” and notes that she was “delusional” – not a very specific diagnosis. Of course it’s deeply concerning that her family sought help from Bill Gothard, sexual assault defendant. The brother was so “distraught” that he said, “She’s getting worse by the hour! What should we do?”
Gothard tells the family that a psychiatrist would “diagnose her with something” in order to feed her serotonin. Why isn’t this a wise choice? Well, Gothard says, “the drugs have a deep damage to our reins, and the rest of our body. And it doesn’t work… [the effects of psychiatric medication] are limited at best.” So he writes off psychiatric medication, just like that, to make room for what? In typical form, Gothard is just trying to sell us snake oil: a supposedly “easy” and “Biblical” alternative to reality.
He advised the family not to have their daughter see a psychiatrist. Rather, to solve mental illness, he suggests, one must do something much more significant to one’s “gut brains” than use FDA approved medication. He called the family a week later to “check up on things, and the parents said, she’s totally well. She’s totally healed. I mean, do you know what we have here? This is solid! Why hasn’t the medical community figured this out… It’s all there! It’s in the literature!… It’s in the blood brain barrier. It’s only to keep out the drugs, not the blood. God has given us an answer to mental illness, and it’s in His Word.” Well now. This sounds like characteristic Gothard.
So what’s his cure-all this time? We’re born, he explains, with these Four Gut Fears: Fear of Rejection, Fear of Failure, Fear of Poverty, and Fear of Death. Serotonin levels control these fears. The adrenaline related to fear builds up, and if our serotonin levels are low due to poor spiritual practices, the result is mental illness. God has revealed to Gothard that the only true way to live the Christian life is to literally meditate day and night, another typical Gothard talking point. In order to increase our serotonin levels naturally, he says, “Well, one way is light. Sunlight. But there’s a better way. And that’s what I’m going to share tonight.” He uses a typical ATI/IBLP-style Power Point Presentation to describe the Four Fears, which humanity supposedly inherited from the Literal Adam & Eve. He concludes that “Inner Light” is what will keep serotonin levels up for true Christians, who will therefore be happy.
My heart sinks as I realize that this whole presentation is targeting young people; it is meant as a way for parents to control their teenagers or young adult children who are asking questions and perhaps even leaving religion. Why does this scare Gothard so much – young people leaving strict fundamentalist Christianity for more liberated, progressive ideologies? Because, he says, in typical fear mongering form, Christianity itself is in danger! Preying upon the fears rampant in the Evangelical Christian church these days, he says that if we don’t learn how to love one another with “all of our reins,” “Christianity’s going to wash out.”
He uses some Greek words to back up his claims, but they aren’t particularly persuasive. He continues clicking through his Power Point Presentation, arguing “youth today are fear dependent.” Hung up on the Four Fears, he says, many young people’s mentality is “let’s get some pleasure before we die!” This is because we think with our hearts, he says, not our brains. I don’t even know exactly what he’s trying to suggest. That our instinctive urges are more powerful than our minds? In that case, he can speak for himself. He insists that, “our neurotransmitters are more in our heart than our brain.”
If that doesn’t seem to make sense – from a scientific (or any) point of view, he goes on to explain that we are made up of mind, heart, and spirit. This is classic ATI/IBLP stuff here. He equates “heart” with “intestines,” and that’s about as close as we get to a definition of our “reins.” One’s faith must begin in the intestines, apparently, rather than the mind. He says, “believe with your heart, confess with your mouth and you will be saved!” That’s great and everything, but it hardly makes him sound any more lucid.
He goes on to loosely tie in meditation, emphasizing that round-the-clock “Biblical” meditation will repress our basic human desires (i.e. “desires of the flesh”). And then we will feel all happy again, because our serotonin levels will rise! What a guarantee. He says, “…a lot of people believe with their mind, but it doesn’t save ‘em!” None of these ideas are “new.” He’s just come up with a new presentation for old ideas.
Gothard concludes by throwing in the Prosperity Gospel (the idea that if we are “good” God will give us material wealth). He’s followed his own principles, he announces, and everything he’s ever done has been successful! So what’s the key he’s going to share with all of us? It turns out, nothing new. Meditation is the key to success. It’s interesting to me that he never delves into what meditation really means or how to do it; apparently he’s just referring to constantly trying to pray. A prayer list, he informs us, is essential. “A Prayer List” gets its own slide in the Power Point. “[I]f you delight in God’s Word, Day and Night… whatever you do will prosper. And I’m here to tell you, it works!” So his apparent state of decent health is a result of his righteousness? It’s ironic that someone who is being sued for molestation and sexual harassment by over a dozen women is claiming to be righteous.
“Either delight in the Word of God day and Night or don’t, and get spanked!” –
He doesn’t go much further with his “spanking” comment but there is scattered clapping and some laughter from the audience as he speaks.
Gothard is clearly out of touch with reality. I think he really believes his new shtick will work, will take hold, will reap financial reward. I’m not questioning the state of Bill Gothard’s mental health. I think he still has a sharp mind. But I would say, adamantly, that I don’t believe he buys into anything he’s saying. He just wants to restore his image, his reputation, his credibility, and make some cash on the side. I’m guessing he’ll need it.
As Gothard closes in prayer, he employs a tactic any attendee of a Gothard seminar is familiar with: “It’d be wonderful for you to tell God one thing… and in fact, let’s do it differently. Every eye open, everyone looking around… How many of you want to be successful? How many of you are successful? Do you want the grace to do it? Revival begins here!” A man in the audience yells, “Hallelujah!”
As he winds down, Gothard comes to the most disturbing claim of the entire talk. He indicates that he has gained access to a mental health facility and is “trying this out” on the mentally ill. Trying what out is still pretty unclear, but one assumes, if he does indeed have mentally ill victims, he is at the very least having them view power-point presentations and teaching them that meditation and a prayer list will solve all of their problems. Will increase their serotonin levels. This is no miracle cure. This is taking advantage of those who are unable to defend themselves. As I mentioned earlier, I have PTSD, of the severe chronic variety. I have major depression and anxiety. And I have left the church. So he is targeting people like me, it seems, with false hopes and expectations.
Of his work with mentally ill patients? He simply says (and eerily so) – “it’s working.”