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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. The Right Left

    I and so many others can relate to this story. Many of us were brought up in religious environment where blind faith was the corner stone of your religious, spiritual and beleif system. Those who questioned were silenced and called doubting Thmases or heretics, while the rest bowed their heads in blind obedience. Religions thrive on deflections and fantasies. The problem solving skill of a human mind is suppressed into submission, denying thoughtful solutions.

    Athiesim is the coming out the closet of the mind rather than the person.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:29 am |
    • dogmandg

      You're basically saying a religious person is not capable of logical thought. I disagree.

      I'm fine with people being atheists. I'm not OK with atheists bashing religion. Why not live and let live?

      March 24, 2013 at 10:40 am |
  2. Mike

    Life is pretty simple, you can choose to believe or not believe in things and live your life accordingly. It's not a hard concept.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:29 am |
    • inspiration for the rest of you

      Lack of understanding actual reality can be very detrimental to your health.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:34 am |
  3. I Am God

    I'm going to go ahead and say this once.
    1.) Hitler was not Atheist. Hitler was Catholic who used his influence as a religious man to garner support for his Nazi group, which led to the rise of Nazi Germany.
    2.) Communism is not Atheism. Communism is a form of politics that was used to kill millions of people. Atheism is not political.

    People using these two things to bash Atheism are fools and are a reason why we Atheists bash those religions who create myths such as the two above.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:29 am |
    • uriel

      you will meet Him whom you arrogantly deny at your appointed time whether you choose to accept it or not. You are a fool.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:44 am |
    • I Am God

      Uriel the fool here is you, who wish to deny the reality of things in the world.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:51 am |
  4. DET

    I am struck by the fact that Stiefel rejected the Old Testament, and religion altogether, because it contained stories based on myths. This indicates that he thinks religion must be true literally in order to be valid - almost as if religion were a form of science. His atheism likewise seems literalist. While not necessarily religious myself, I find Stiefel's thought structure to be simplistic. Religious stories (myths) were meant to be taken metaphorically. Certain religious traditions (not naming names here) have, unfortunately, debased religious belief to explanatory schemas allegedly based on "fact". Hence the arguments between science and "religion" taking place today.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:28 am |
    • Science

      Dover Trial Transcripts............................................. FACTS.

      Below are the complete transcripts from the Dover Trial. Thanks to our friends at the National Center for Science Education for helping us fill in the missing transcripts.

      http://www.aclupa.org/legal/legaldocket/intelligentdesigncase/dovertrialtranscripts.htm

      March 24, 2013 at 10:34 am |
  5. treblemaker

    To all non-atheists-when you're on your deathbed, let's see how your non-belief holds up as you face the Lord God Almighty when you come to the end of your road trip on earth, and He calls for what belongs to Him-your eternal spirit that is housed in your body. It is then He alone decides where that spirit goes. There is no morality without GOD! You know the old saying–it's my way or the highway....well....figure it out.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:27 am |
    • treblemaker

      I meant to say-to all atheists-my error

      March 24, 2013 at 10:28 am |
    • hal 9001

      I'm sorry, "treblemaker", but "God", "He", "Lord", "Almighty" and "Him" are all elements of mythology, therfore your assertions are unfounded. Using my Idiomatic Expression Equivalency module (IEE), the expression that best matches the degree to which your unfounded assertions may represent truths is: "EPIC FAIL".

      March 24, 2013 at 10:32 am |
    • Paulie

      Right!!??

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

      You want me to have the same moral compass as your deity? Fine then, you should have no problems with me wanting to murder the world. You should cheer me on as I torture people into believing in me as your deity seemed fond of doing. You should have absolutely no problems with me wanting to tack my child to a cross as a message to the world. Yeah, you want that morality, don't you.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:35 am |
    • Brando

      You are an uneducated idiot.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:35 am |
    • Jeesh

      treblemaker
      Got to tell god is going to be sh!t out of luck when I die, I already sold my soul to the devil for a case of 21 year old scotch.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:35 am |
    • Renea

      Amen..couldn't have said it better!!

      March 24, 2013 at 10:37 am |
    • Boutwelljab

      Most atheists would view your belief to be manmade silliness, not unlike Santa Claus but , without the fun parts!

      March 24, 2013 at 10:37 am |
    • Renea

      Wish CNN could refine their reply section. I meant Amen to treblemaker's original statement. It just shows way at the bottom of the list.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:39 am |
    • Chris

      Newsflash.....there is no god, so while you're sitting there wasting your time planning for an eternal life that will never come, I'll be busy making the most of this one, because I realize it's the only one I have.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:43 am |
  6. Mohammad Salman

    Atheism is simply irrational. Just because ignorant theologians are running the show doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist. He is not a personal God, he is not anything you can think of and revolution doesn’t contradict Him one small bit.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:27 am |
    • Mohammad Salman

      *Evolution

      March 24, 2013 at 10:28 am |
    • DNA

      So it is illogical to assume something exists without testable proofs ? Do,you wish to fly in an airplane that has not been rigorously tested?

      March 24, 2013 at 10:34 am |
    • Damocles

      I'm guessing you don't really look at what you post. How can you be aware of something that you say defies any attempt to think about it?

      March 24, 2013 at 10:37 am |
    • Boutwelljab

      No sale!

      March 24, 2013 at 10:38 am |
  7. HenryMiller

    The principal problem with religion in the US is that some people try to use it as an excuse to impose laws and discriminatory practices on others.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:27 am |
    • 1984

      I agree. The fact is they do use it to influence laws. History shows that that the Churches were always in bed with the royalty that was in charge at the time. In fact at one time the only people who knew how to read was the clergy. The local serfs and peasants did not know how. So with that its easy to convince people, especially people who are oppressed. Today we see the evangelists on TV doing the same thing. And they have become very wealthy from it. This wealth from religion has given the religious sects power over our elected officials... People who are non-believers, which is their right, are a minority. They have no voice and are discriminated against because of their non-belief of man made religions. They are humans too.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:48 am |
  8. GrogInOhio

    Meh... militant atheism is just as repugnant as militant evangelism. How 'bout just leaving everyone the hell alone?

    March 24, 2013 at 10:27 am |
    • Over 40,000 denominations of insanity

      Well, the problem is:

      Some believe the Pope is the Anti-Christ. Some believe Obama is the Anti-Christ.

      Some believe that celibacy is appropriate for certain people, or for certain positions. It's ridiculous. Celibacy is unnatural and will continue to cause problems for the religious institutions that employ it.

      Many of the people from these same institutions advocate against abortion, but don't understand the realistic benefit of the morning after pill or even basic contraception; their unrealistic wishful thinking is causing the death of many at the hands of disease. Realistically, many abortions could be avoided if a morning-after pill were not viewed as such an evil option. Many of these same people bring children into the world at a high pace, and then would prefer that the rest of society take over and educate their children in their particular brand of religion when they don't plan well.

      In the U.S. recently we learned of the head of Lutheran CMS chastising a minister of that church for participating in a joint service for the victims of the Newtown school shooting.

      One sect calls homosexuality an abomination while the next one in the same denomination is already performing gay marriage.

      One sect, the Westboro Baptist Church believes Americans are being killed at war because America is too kind to "fags".

      One sect believes that Jesus and Satan were brothers and that Christ will return to Jerusalem AND Jackson County, Missouri.

      One sect believes women to be subservient, while another sect in the same denomination promotes equality between the sexes.

      Conflicted right from the very beginning, Christianity continues to splinter and create divisions and more extremism as it goes.

      =================================================
      Has anything improved with Christianity since 200+ years ago?

      Thomas Jefferson, POTUS #3 (from Notes on the State of Virginia):

      Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.

      James Madison, POTUS #4, chief architect of the U.S. Constitution & the Bill of Rights (from A Memorial and Remonstrance delivered to the Virginia General Assembly in 1785):

      During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution.

      John Adams, POTUS #2 (in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, 09/03/1816):

      I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved – the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced! With the rational respect that is due to it, knavish priests have added prostitutions of it, that fill or might fill the blackest and bloodiest pages of human history.

      Ben Franklin (from a letter to The London Packet, 3 June 1772):

      If we look back into history for the character of present sects in Christianity, we shall find few that have not in their turns been persecutors, and complainers of persecution. The primitive Christians thought persecution extremely wrong in the Pagans, but practised it on one another. The first Protestants of the Church of England, blamed persecution in the Roman church, but practised it against the Puritans: these found it wrong in the Bishops, but fell into the same practice themselves both here and in New England.

      Thomas Paine (from The Age of Reason):

      All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:34 am |
    • History Channel's "The Bible" Parts 3 & 4 - In Under 11 Minutes!

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tTRn28iZD_g&w=640&h=390]

      March 24, 2013 at 10:38 am |
    • DanC

      Agree with you in principle GroginOhio, to each his own, but they have to exist in a balance. The rise of militant Atheism only exists because of the rise of the religious right in taking over the GOP, and their ultimate manifestation, the American Taliban masquerading as the TeaParty. Just as historical injustices such as gender and race discrimination saw the rise of militant movements to counter them, that have since mellowed once change has been achieved, so we find ourselves now in the same position with the extreme religious right (hopefully on the decline and the GOP is waking up to reality!) and a militant movement to counter it.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:40 am |
  9. bulldog31

    Nothing earthshattering about his beliefs. Atheism is just another of many Theisms.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:26 am |
  10. Scout

    He believes in only himself apparently. A self centered all mighty (bc he has money) that has nothing better to do. He is an advocate of Satan whether he spreads that part or not. I feel sorry for him and pray something comes into his life to allow him to see the truth....of faith and miracles and suffering with a joyful heart.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:26 am |
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini ©™

      @ Scout:
      "He believes in only himself" is one of the best accolades any person could earn.
      Such independence and confidence could not be achieved by money, but independence and confidence often lead to money.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:40 am |
  11. Joe M.

    Funny how atheists don't realize that they, themselves, are essentially a religion. What are some of the hallmarks of a religion? Steadfast belief in your position on the afterlife, attempts to convert others to your way of thinking. It's sad, really. Atheists rail against religion without realizing that they are a religion themselves. Talk about self-haters.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:26 am |
    • inspiration for the rest of you

      Wrong: religion is a strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny

      March 24, 2013 at 10:29 am |
    • NAZQAR

      Atheism is as much a religion as not collecting stamps is a hobby.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:30 am |
  12. Charlie

    I don't get it. Look at Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Michael Bloomberg, Johns Hopkins and the like. It's this guys money to spend, but spend it on dis-belief? The rise and liberation of dis-believers? How does one wake up every morning and feel like "today I am helping humanity" and feel true purpose of life. With his money he spreads the decay of life and humanity.
    I won't mention his name in this paragraph. It's the exact opposite of the names I have listed above with regards to respect for man kind and mans true purpose.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:26 am |
  13. bulldog31

    No news here. Atheism is just another theism.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:26 am |
    • inspiration for the rest of you

      You mean a-theism.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:27 am |
    • Joe M.

      Correct. They are a religion themselves, along with attempts to convert others to their way of thinking.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:28 am |
  14. Geoffrey

    I found my belief in GOD by "free" thinking. Can atheists accept that?

    March 24, 2013 at 10:25 am |
    • inspiration for the rest of you

      It's lack of educating yourself. It's like saying that you got "free-thinking" into convincing yourself that the earth is flat.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:27 am |
  15. Thomas Jefferson

    [If] the nature of... government [were] a subordination of the civil to the ecclesiastical power, I [would] consider it as desperate for long years to come. Their steady habits [will] exclude the advances of information, and they [will] seem exactly where they [have always been]. And there [the] clergy will always keep them if they can. [They] will follow the bark of liberty only by the help of a tow-rope.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:25 am |
  16. Marty

    "Keep in mind that the devil can’t create anything. He can only pervert what is good. And he’s especially adept at enlisting atheists for his schemes, because, as Psalms 14 and 53 say, “the fool has said in his heart that there is no God.”

    March 24, 2013 at 10:25 am |
  17. Jeesh

    I love it when the Christians bit*ch and whine about non-believers commenting on the BS religious stories (pope a dope, ad nauseum) that CNN posts and when a story shows up on atheism they show up in vast numbers to do the same, hypocrites.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:25 am |
  18. David Ouellette

    Because he saw flaws in the Bible, he became an atheist – he can't be much of a thinker and he's also an extremeist. Most atheists are mad at organized religion and he's simply one more. He needs to put his money and talents to better use.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:24 am |
    • Jeesh

      No. Your advice is not required.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:29 am |
    • Damocles

      So, David, if I may ask..... if you found a flaw in a vehicle, say no brakes, are you saying that you would still drive it?

      March 24, 2013 at 10:40 am |
  19. Face-Palm

    Have your religion please. But stop legislating your ignorance upon me. I know you think your baby is the most adorable baby ever, I get it. But don’t force me to worship your cross eyed, ugly troll-tard marinating in its own excrement. Fair enough?

    March 24, 2013 at 10:24 am |
  20. cg

    Whether one believes in God or not, we are all matter and energy. Nothing gets lost, nothing is gained, all is transformed. So, who knows when we die, maybe our core essence will get to live another day..

    March 24, 2013 at 10:24 am |
    • inspiration for the rest of you

      You mean the bunch of chmicals we turn into gets recycled?

      March 24, 2013 at 10:25 am |
    • SixDegrees

      A lot of losers hoping for a do-over believe that. They'd rather hope for a second chance than act positively in the present.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:26 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.