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The money man behind atheism’s activism
Todd Stiefel, a wealthy businessman, is responsible for bank rolling many atheism activism projects.
March 23rd, 2013
10:00 PM ET

The money man behind atheism’s activism

By Dan Merica, CNN

(CNN) - Todd Stiefel is far from a household name, and the odds he gets recognized on a street corner, even in his hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, are small.

For Stiefel, a slim, scruffy ex-Catholic, his public persona is his wallet and activism. Through the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, the 38-year-old has made an indelible impact on the nation’s fastest-growing “religious” group: the nonbelievers. Most of the highest-profile atheists campaigns –- flashy billboards in high-traffic areas, news-making efforts to get atheists to come out of the closet, and boisterous rallies - are funded by his fortune.

Stiefel isn’t shy about his far-reaching goals.

“What I am trying to accomplish is multifold, he told CNN. “I consider myself working on the next civil equality movement, just like women’s rights, LGBT rights and African-American Civil Rights. We are still in the early stages of eliminating discrimination against atheists and humanists. That is something I really want to accomplish.”

So far, Stiefel has pumped $3.5 million into those aspirations, and his money benefits a number of atheist organizations, from the Clergy Project, a group that helps atheist and doubting clergy out of the closet, to American Atheists, arguably the most in-your-face atheist group in the country.

Stiefel sees his work as far more than just money. For him, this is just the beginning.

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From Catholic school to atheist millionaire

Stiefel was born in Albany, New York, in 1974 to Catholic parents. He was raised in a Catholic household, confirmed in the church, attended Sunday school, went to a Catholic high school.

“I was a cross-wearing, praying, religious-retreat Catholic,” Stiefel said. “You could say there were points that I felt the spirit.”

But his faith, he said, fluctuated during high school. “I was always a skeptic,” he said, “and I always asked a lot of questions.”

At 18, Stiefel attended Duke University to pursue a degree in psychology. To fill an elective, he took an Old Testament history class at the Duke University Divinity School. It was there, he said, that his final “ebb” away from belief took hold.

In the class, Stiefel said he saw a flawed logic in the Old Testament. In particular, he said, he began to see much of the Old Testament as unoriginal stories that had been told in many pagan traditions.

“'Wait a second, is what I believe in really the truth or is it really the accumulation of myths bundled in a package?’” Stiefel remembers asking himself. “That was the end of my faith right there.”

After graduating from Duke, Stiefel went into the family business: Stiefel Laboratories, a company that develops products to combat skin diseases. For 12 years, Stiefel worked with his family and turned the business into a major player in their specialized market.

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In 2009, with Stiefel in an executive position, the Stiefel family opted to sell the company to GlaxoSmithKline. The price tag: $2.9 billion, according to media reports at the time.

“I only got a very small piece of that, for the record,” Stiefel said with a laugh. “I did, however, find myself in a unique and fortunate position where I was able to do whatever I wanted to do.”

And like many who have the luxury of doing exactly what they want, Stiefel began thinking about what he was truly passionate about. After kicking around the idea of starting another business, the answer became clear to the young millionaire: advocating for atheism.

“I wanted to try to help the world,” he said. “I wanted to give back and this seemed like the most productive way to help humanity.”

‘Just doing my part’

Stiefel put $2 million in to begin his foundation. In his first year, according to tax documents, the nonprofit disbursed $700,000 to groups like the Secular Coalition for America, the American Humanist Association and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In 2010 and 2011, the giving continued with the foundation distributing around $750,000 to different atheist and humanist causes. In 2011, he also pumped another $500,000 into his foundation.

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“I am just doing my part within my means,” he said. “Different people have different means. I am doing what I can do, just like the rest of the people in the movement are.”

But recipients of the money, such as David Silverman, president of the American Atheists, see his impact as much greater than just a one-off activist.

“Todd is an example of what major contributions can accomplish for atheism,” he said. “From a donation stand point, he is really leading the movement to a different level.”

Walking the line

One of Stiefel’s major concerted contributions in the last three years was the Reason Rally, an event held on the National Mall in Washington, which was billed as a watershed moment in the atheism movement. The goal of the event was to show to religious Americans that atheism was a powerful minority in American life.

Stiefel speaks onstage at the Reason Rally.

The rally drew a number of high-profile speakers, including Richard Dawkins, the author of “The God Delusion,” and thousands of attendees, despite rainy weather.

In his speech to the crowd, Stiefel talked about what he sees as the most important problem facing atheism: “Discrimination comes from ignorance, and in this case it is ignorance about our beliefs,” he said. “We are told freethinkers believe in nothing, but that’s a misunderstanding. We believe in a lot of things; we don’t all believe the same things.”

Stiefel put $250,000 toward the rally, a contribution that Silverman, the organizer, said was critical.

“He brought the Reason Rally to a brand new level,” Silverman said. Without that money, “we would have had far fewer people and a far smaller event.”

Silverman and the Reason Rally advocated for a specific brand of atheism. Silverman, who regularly calls his group the “Marines of the Freethought Movement,” is not shy in making it clear that he views his goal in calling out religion and elevating atheism.

Stiefel says he doesn't necessarily endorse those tactics wholly, but he does see their validity.

“I try to walk a line,” he said. “I see religious criticism as valuable, and groups like American Atheists are good at that. I do think we have to have a dialogue about who has the right ideas and part of that is pointing out the flaws in religious ideas.”

Stiefel continued: “I also see inter-belief work, though. I do find a lot of value in inter-belief work and I do see a lot of value in general charity work.”

Evidence of that is his work on cancer fundraising.

In 2012, Stiefel approached the Foundation Beyond Belief with an idea of creating networks of nonbelievers around the country to help raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Stiefel tapped into his atheist network and began organizing different event.

In total, the atheist groups raised $430,000 in 2012, including a $215,000 donation from Stiefel and his wife, Diana.

“Across the country there are 150 local groups of atheists and freethinkers raising money for charity,” Stiefel said proudly.

The key, however, was bridging the gap between atheist and religious communities in the name of charity.

“We welcomed Christians, as well,” he said. “Some of our biggest fundraisers were Christians.”

For 2013, the goal is to raise $500,000.

Expanding the community

With money and resolve comes great influence for Stiefel. He has the ear of many atheist leaders, meaning he can dictate the movement’s focus.

Stiefel said he wants to see the atheism movement expand its footprint.

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“What I would really like to see is expanding out communities to people who may not just be atheists or agnostics and into people who are religiously skeptical and may still have some religious beliefs,” he said. “Nobody is a perfect skeptic and I would like to see more people like that in our community.”

For Stiefel, this is a personal priority. He says his wife, whom he describes as a skeptical Christian, is someone who would fall within an expanded atheist movement.

“My message is not only of anti-theism,” Stiefel said. “I don’t choose to attack religion itself. I see religion as something that provides both good and ill to the world.”

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Atheism

soundoff (7,617 Responses)
  1. Fred

    God cannot exist because something would have had to create him too. Can't create yourself, sorry.

    March 24, 2013 at 9:56 am |
    • rebru chapson

      see the Big Bang Theory – there has to be some point of origin!

      March 24, 2013 at 9:58 am |
  2. Realist

    ****************

    The Christian god emanates from the EVILBIBLE.com (visit the link)

    ****************

    March 24, 2013 at 9:56 am |
    • Realist

      *******************

      So thank goodness he is imaginary ... GodisImaginary.com (visit the link)

      *******************

      March 24, 2013 at 10:01 am |
    • Realist

      ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

      ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

      March 24, 2013 at 10:04 am |
  3. Nicodemus Grumpschmidt

    To all believers: Notice the way Todd Stiefel approaches people and shares what atheism is really about. Far too many believers think that atheists are truly evil people simply because they don't believe in any fictional god. And why is that? Simple. The church wants its followers to stay in line so it villifies anyone whose beliefs, or lack thereof, run counter to that of the church. The church spreads all-out lies to accomplish this. One of the biggest reasons we atheists parted ways with religion was not only because of the fiction we were told to take as truth but also the great hypocrisy. Religion claims to be a beacon of morality but has for centuries used the name of its god to murder and maim people who stand in disagreement, no matter how moral those people may actually have been. And no, there was no original sin. No, there was no talking snake. No, there has never been any need for this silly concept of "salvation". No, there was no resurrection. No, there is no judgement. These are all ploys to scare the living daylights out of you to keep you fearful, keep you following the ways of the church, and keep your hard-earned, taxed income filling their tax-free coffers. Oh, and by the way, if you believe that god ordained the brutal murder of Jesus so that all humankind could be "saved", then you condone infanticide. That's another issue I have a little trouble with. There! Doesn't it feel good to truly be on the path toward enlightenment? 🙂

    March 24, 2013 at 9:55 am |
    • Nate

      That's the kind of full of yourself type of speech I would expect from someone like you.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:03 am |
    • Ed

      Nice one Nate, try to at least have an answer, rather then a foolish statement. It just reinforces his point. Again, you're too foolish to understand this.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:10 am |
  4. Ed F.

    Religion is the base of all evil, all war.

    March 24, 2013 at 9:55 am |
    • Bob Carlson

      I does appear to be true. I challenge any reader of this to cite an example of a war initiated without religion entering into the equation.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:00 am |
    • Damocles

      I kinda sorta have to disagree. I'd say people are the basis for evil and war. We are also the basis for good and peace. Kinda unique, aren't we?

      March 24, 2013 at 10:02 am |
    • rand

      Soooo funny!! This guys organization wants to attack FORMER Republicans who really hold no position of power at this current point in politics.

      Just THINK how your money COULD BE SPENT all you donators out there...................oh and I'm an atheist

      March 24, 2013 at 10:15 am |
  5. Joe_ma

    I don't have respect to this man. Why not spend money on Humanitarian need or advancement of science and medicine. Like feeding the poor or sick children.

    I guess history repeat itself like a well known atheist. Hitler, Stalin, Lenin. History will judge this man

    I rather side with JFK, Hoover and G. Washington who rely on God to advance their country. Liberty One nation under god.

    March 24, 2013 at 9:55 am |
    • rand

      so TRUE!!!

      March 24, 2013 at 9:59 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      You clearly have no idea what you are talking about. There are so many wrongs on your statement I can't even get stsr=arted, so I'll just say FAIL.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:01 am |
    • Luis Wu

      I guess you didn't read the part about his contributions to charity? Religion is just ancient mythology and superst!tious nonsense, it needs to be opposed and debunked at every opportunity. It's holding back progress in the world and contributing to ignorance. I applaud him for his work and I support his efforts 100%.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:01 am |
    • I Am God

      1.) Hitler was catholic. Stop denying the obvious.
      2.) He has donated to a lot of charities as well as we Atheists. Notice in the article that they stated that? Or are you claiming that donating to finding a cure for cancer and leukemia useless?

      March 24, 2013 at 10:02 am |
    • I Am God

      Oh and
      3.) Stalin, Mao Pao (whatever his name is), and so on and so forth followed "Communism" not "Atheism."

      March 24, 2013 at 10:05 am |
    • Shawn

      Yea....screw fighting for religious equality. He's wasting his time and money.....

      March 24, 2013 at 10:08 am |
    • Joe_ma

      Communism is atheism. They don't believe in God or religion. Look at East Berlin. Communist suppress their religion. They risk their live just to go over the wall to west berlin where they are free to practice religion.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:09 am |
    • Shawn

      If I could conceive that the general government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded, that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.
      - George Washington, letter to the United Baptist Chamber of Virginia, May 1789, in Anson Phelps Stokes, Church and State in the United States, Vol 1. p. 495, quoted from Albert J Menendez and Edd Doerr, The Great Quotations on Religious Freedom

      March 24, 2013 at 10:11 am |
    • I Am God

      Jo-ma you are clueless. Let us put it in simple terms for you.
      Communsim – a political group
      Atheism – a group that does not belief in deities

      Now that should be a great help to you in your future education. Learn the difference before spouting off some dumb rhetoric you heard from a priest who believes he speaks the word of God.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:14 am |
    • JustJosh

      "I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.."

      "The Party, as such, stands for positive Christianity, but does not bind itself in the matter of creed to any particular confession."

      "In the Bible we find the text, 'That which is neither hot nor cold will I spew out of my mouth.' This utterance of the great Nazarene has kept its profound validity until the present day."

      Indeed spoken like a true atheist, eh? Sorry, but Hitler was a Christian.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:14 am |
    • I Am God

      Joe-ma if you wish to advance our country then follow our fore fathers in the Separation of Church and State.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:21 am |
    • Joe_ma

      @ I am God. If you want to be Atheist then go to Atheist country like Russia, China, And North Korea. Don't spread your idealism because its a total nonsense here.

      If I will raise my children and I will insist that their are God even there are none. If they had no one to go when they are in trouble or problem at least they have the imaginary God to rely on to go on.... What happen if Atheist loose hope. They kill themselves or kill someone because there's no hell or heaven for them.

      This is the same as Santa Clause. Even they're not real all kids are happy. I believe when your kid you also believe in Santa Clause.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:45 am |
    • Joe_ma

      GOD Believer.

      It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favors.
      George Washington

      ATHEIST:
      “It is not truth that matters, but victory.”
      ― Adolf Hitler

      Who do you side?

      March 24, 2013 at 10:57 am |
    • I Am God

      Joe ma they have brainwashed you well didn't they? Hitler was Catholic you ignorant fool. Look it up in the history books. Also SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE YOU TROLL.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:58 am |
    • Moby Schtick

      Your examples of great christians are JFK, Hoover, and Washington????? Stupid troll is stupid.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:02 am |
  6. a-money

    This is nonsense... saying atheism is a religion is like saying bald is a hair color...or saying not collecting stamp is a hobby...This is the dumbest article I've read today smh...

    March 24, 2013 at 9:55 am |
    • Luis Wu

      Absolutely.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:02 am |
  7. rand

    WHAT exactly is the POINT of this man's efforts? I am an atheist but I am not going to STOP OTHER PEOPLE FROM BELIEVING! It's THEIR CHOICE to believe. This man is nothing more than a CONTROL FREAK

    March 24, 2013 at 9:54 am |
    • chentwinks

      Agree, wholeheartedly!

      March 24, 2013 at 10:07 am |
    • SixDegrees

      You sound fearful. Afraid people might start thinking for themselves, you sound like.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:10 am |
  8. RillyKewl

    Go get 'em Todd Stiefel!!
    What an inspiration.
    More power to you, Brother.
    And, thank you.

    March 24, 2013 at 9:54 am |
  9. Jon

    God=Santa Claus.

    March 24, 2013 at 9:54 am |
  10. gzone555

    I am an atheist, and cannot see how any intelligent person can believe in the god myth.

    March 24, 2013 at 9:53 am |
    • Luis Wu

      Intelligent people don't.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:02 am |
  11. mikeinsjc

    He's scared. He thinks come Judgement Day, sincerity is going to count.

    March 24, 2013 at 9:52 am |
    • Gerald

      Atheism seems to be a curse word in this world, believing in god is like believing in Santa, but for adults, but yet again, how can they grow up if life expectancy on this planet is around 70?

      March 24, 2013 at 10:02 am |
    • Ryan

      What about his statements or persona could be construed to support that assertion? Being afraid of something you don't believe in is, so far as I can tell, unlikely. I imagine that Christians do not, on average, fear being reincarnated as a lesser being for their impiety towards the Hindu gods, for example.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:09 am |
  12. Which god?

    Given the condition of our world, god is either profoundly evil, profoundly incompetent, or non-existent. Take your pick.

    March 24, 2013 at 9:52 am |
  13. Miguel

    Being a true Catholic Christian is not about just a book, but also a Person. Atheism doesn't exist. Everyone has a god. Where you heart is where your god is.

    March 24, 2013 at 9:52 am |
    • Bob Carlson

      Huh?

      March 24, 2013 at 9:53 am |
    • Damocles

      Well, hell, that's going to be painful as all get out when the Alien deity bursts through my chest because, you know, that's where my heart is.

      March 24, 2013 at 9:56 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      No Miguel, not everyone has a god. I don't require one, nor do any Atheists that I know of.

      March 24, 2013 at 9:57 am |
    • bosefasaurus

      What a dumb statement.

      March 24, 2013 at 9:58 am |
    • Duke

      I assure you atheism is alive and well in my household ... and I reserve my highest mockery for "true believers".

      March 24, 2013 at 9:59 am |
    • michael

      There is such a thing as not believing in anything. Your mind just cannot comprehend the idea that we are not too different from the rest of the animals around us. We will die and rot in the ground like them.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:00 am |
    • Luis Wu

      How utterly stupid.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:03 am |
  14. Ross White, Canada

    Hey, I like this guy... he's not afraid to say the truth about all this fary tale nonsense. I just hope some bible thumper nut doesn't decide to shoot him "in the name of God" or some stupid crap like that.

    Joel Osteen on the other hand... "Hey, you can buy my book for only $49.99" (Visa and Mastercard accepted). That dude has a personal net worth of 40 million dollars. All from "The Lord." Amazing...

    Religion is THE biggest ripp off in the world. How can anyone NOT feel stupid buying something that is not even tangible? Oh wait, I know... because they were brainwashed as kids. (My bad...)

    Best Christain quote ever – "Because it says so in the bible." (Or, down south, correctly pronounced "babble.") No reason, no logic – just "because"...

    NO THANKS! I have a brain of my own...

    March 24, 2013 at 9:52 am |
  15. Jason

    Thanks for all the great work Todd !!

    March 24, 2013 at 9:51 am |
  16. Who Cares

    I am an atheist and I could give a crap about joining any atheist groups. What would be the point? I cannot PROVE god does not exist, I simply do not believe the story of the Christian Bible nor the Koran nor Torah (Which Christians do not believe either...duhhhh). What is so hard to understand about that? Again – I cannot PROVE god does not exist, I simply ain't buying the story.

    March 24, 2013 at 9:51 am |
    • Ross White, Canada

      Good point actually. I would never join a club of any kind either. I'm just tired (very tired) of having the bible thumpers constantly pushing their nonsense on those who don't believe the things they do.

      Hey, Christians... LEAVE ME ALONE

      March 24, 2013 at 9:55 am |
    • Shawn

      The problem is, if Atheists remain divided individuals, we will continue to be discriminated against. Behind gays, we are the #1 discriminated minority in America. Be thankful Stiefel and those like him exist, or you would be even further marginalized.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:06 am |
    • Ryan

      I couldn't disagree more with Shawn. I don't think that discrimination against atheists is so rampant that an atheist wearing a hoodie or playing loud music outside a convenience store would be shot out of fear, for example, and I think claiming that atheists are victims is unproductive. In fact, really sadly, it's Christianity that has historically proselytized an ideal of being the noble victim of ignorant repression–of being a "martyr" for some higher cause. Privileged white people misconstrue themselves as victims when someone speaks up and disagrees with them, as if disagreement were the same thing as persecution. I don't think we're well-off imitating that; in fact, I think we'd do well to get rid of that self-aggrandizing obsession as a society. I'm not sure if I would join an atheist group or not, but I can think of several different reasons to do so:

      – Finding a group of people with shared beliefs can create a sense of community and mutual support

      – Increasing visibility of a supportive group may help others to come to terms with their own doubts

      – Responding to the claim that only the religious are compelled to act for social good requires action, not just words

      There are likely others as well, but martyrdom is not one of them.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:33 am |
    • TOOZX5

      You cannot prove that Zeus doesn't exist either. So what? Does that then mean he may exist too? You can disprove specific religious claims in regard to nature since nature is testable.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:50 am |
  17. Shawn

    From all the comments from religious people on here, it is quite obvious that Stiefel's fight to end discrimination against Atheists is far from over.

    You people coming in here to post comments about how Atheists are going to Hell is like an Atheist coming into a church and flipping off the cross. You invent yourselves as a victim whenever Atheists simply show that they exist.

    March 24, 2013 at 9:51 am |
  18. shiststone

    SOOOO Glad that Mr. Stiefel is using his fortune and energy to organize the atheist movement! We need more like him to combat the religious nut cases that have mislead the human race for far too long!

    March 24, 2013 at 9:50 am |
  19. Dan Roper

    If it wasn't for the assertions put forth by religion, there would be no need for Atheism. We simply choose not to believe that which you propose.

    March 24, 2013 at 9:50 am |
  20. stayinalive

    Just another wacko group no different than religious cults. Some guy who knows how to make money but clearly doesn't know how to spend it.

    March 24, 2013 at 9:50 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.