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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. AK

    The difference between Richard Dawkins and God, is God does not think he is Richard Dawkins.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:47 am |
    • hal 9001

      I'm sorry, "AK", but "God" is an element of mythology, therefore your assertion is unfounded. Using my Idiomatic Expression Equivalency module (IEE), the expression that best matches the degree to which your unfounded assertion may represent a truth is: "TOTAL FAIL".

      March 24, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • chubby rain

      True, because God most likely doesn't exist, it would make it hard for him to think of anything.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • Damocles

      Two more differences come to mind, as well. 1) I've seen pictures of Dawkins and 2) I've heard him speak.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:55 am |
    • BajaDelMar

      Speaking of hypocrites. People like you choose to BELIEVE in your magic sky fairy and ridicule others who have a mind of their own, without providing any proof of whatsoever. You're just another xian egotistical windbag.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:02 am |
  2. Dana

    Dan Merica, non-believers are not a "religious" group. That is like saying that not collecting stamps is a hobby.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:47 am |
    • Scooch

      Dana, that is a GREAT way to put that. A GREAT way.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:59 am |
  3. Scooch

    Okay seriously... atheism is NOT a religion. What is it with people saying that it is? The "a" in "atheism" means "without". So, "without theism". It's a worldview.

    Good on ya, Todd. Thanks for proving that a belief in the supernatural is not the only way to make the world a better place. And thanks for not being an angry atheist!

    March 24, 2013 at 10:46 am |
  4. RichardSRussell

    A nearby link leads to the CNN story about the new and old popes meeting for lunch.
    I wonder why they didn't invite Pope Insanity MXLV?
    (You could google it.)

    March 24, 2013 at 10:46 am |
  5. caesarbc

    Why are people so intolerant? I do not believe in Go, yet I know many people do. Who am I to tell them they cannot worship freely in our country? Leave them alone.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:45 am |
    • inspiration for the rest of you

      I believe in Go, and I'm an atheist! Go go, girl!

      March 24, 2013 at 10:47 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      You'd have to go a fur piece to find people who are more ardent defenders of the separation of church and state than atheists.
      But just because we believe in freedom of religion doesn't mean we have to give up freedom of speech when we think it's ridiculous.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:47 am |
    • Godless America`

      I think you have that backwards buddy. Usually it's the "enlightened" who try pushing their thoughts and beliefs of non-believers, to "save them from eternal damnation."

      March 24, 2013 at 10:48 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Where in the article does anyone say people should not be free to worship? You are complaining about a non-issue.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:03 am |
  6. Besso

    In regards to a belief in a Deity the argument can be put succinctly...."There is to...prove me wrong"..."There is not, prove yourself right". All the other logic (or lack thereof) that attempts support either view are superficial since neither side can agree on a common test. This whole brain dance is futile. i surely do not care for those who try to force their religious values on me (there are many). Equally I do not care for those atheists that want to stifle those that would live their lives in accordance to a religious paradigm. Unfortunately tolerance is in short supply for the extreme versions of both.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:45 am |
  7. Tom

    The "discrimination against atheists and humanists" has obviously held this man back tremendously. May we all be so lucky. To compare atheists to civil rights movements is both ridiculous and offensive.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:45 am |
    • An Awesome Message from P.W. Swivel

      People are People

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CbD3Hlbvafo&w=640&h=360]

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

    So you don't believe? So you attack religion? Go do your thing but make something good out of it not a negative. Who said religion is perfect? Not believers. i guess you want attention. The liberal amoral bias press will give you all that and more.
    If you don't like religion, TV, cable, newspapers, red cars, whatever, don't turn them on or buy them. So what is this really all about?

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

      Religion can't have it both ways. You can't try to shove religion down the american throats (i.e. DOMA, creationism in schools, anti-abortion legislation, etc) and then cry "OOOH, YOU'RE ATTACKING ME" when we stand up against it.
      If you want religion to be left alone, get it out of the political / legislative arenas.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:51 am |
  9. 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 10:44 am |
  10. scallywag

    If we were created in Gawd's image, then how come we aren't invisible too?

    March 24, 2013 at 10:43 am |
    • inspiration for the rest of you

      The scientists are already working on that one!

      March 24, 2013 at 10:48 am |
  11. inspiration for the rest of you

    It's funny that people can be so uncritical and so dumb when it comes to religion. Aren't people supposed to be intelligent?

    March 24, 2013 at 10:43 am |
  12. gpark1018

    I am not atheist, agnostic or follower of religion, yet I know there are millions like me who believe in a purpose for our existence and an understanding of “god” which we have not yet fully attained. Our path towards that understanding will come through science, compassion and an openness to new ideas.

    Some humans have higher capacities to think abstractly and tune in to this potential. Some must be led with structure and dogma. The goal of our species must be to find a way towards common respect and wonder for our universe and away from behaviors led by dogman promising elation or damnation.

    When I see a person living by the bible I think of a child living by his first grade primer. See Jane run...see Jane go to church on Sunday...be like Jane....stand up...sit down....kneel....pray....eat this...drink this....believe this...stay in line. Some people must be led this way right now, but I hope it is not always true.

    When people confront me on religion, they seem concerned I might be an atheist, but soon are comforted that I believe in a higher power. I say that god (or whatever you like to call it) reveals himself to each of us within our capacities, and that for me god is nothing more than the existence of all things. Believers are like sheep and Atheist are too narrow minded in their definition of god. God doesn't have to have a purpose or direct our lives or tell us how to live...he just is and we are all a part of that definition of god. We are still too naive and simplistic to see the big picture and remove ourselves from the confines of definition.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:42 am |
    • gager

      Aristotle said it best... our purpose is to seek happiness, but not at the expense of others.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:44 am |
    • inspiration for the rest of you

      In other words, you don't have the guts to admit that god is a bunch of "spiritual" nonsense. You are a loser.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:44 am |
    • QL

      Right. Afraid to take a position, you've invented a pseudoalternative and call it more educated and enlightened than either religion or atheism. Let me clue you in. You're another religious pseudo intellectual. Go back to your coffee shop.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:52 am |
    • End Religion

      "god is nothing more than the existence of all things."

      We have a perfectly good term for the existence of all things. It is "universe". Your need to call it god smacks of the same childish personification you rail against.

      ***
      "Atheist are too narrow minded in their definition of god."

      Doofus, atheists don't believe in any gods. You wanna talk about a narrow minded definition, try "the god of israel," who has a "chosen people" and a set of particular immoral laws. If there is an actual Creator, the God of Israel could only be a subset of that Creator if it existed at all.

      ***
      "God doesn't have to have a purpose or direct our lives or tell us how to live...he just is"

      Except that we have ZERO evidence of any god's existence and no reason to assume there is one simply because we currently lack certain bits of knowledge about our Universe. i think this is hilarious that you call believers childish and then go on to tell us you believe. How arrogant.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:54 am |
    • dan mckeown

      But where is the evidence for this so called revealing god? Why would he be so cruel as to make some dumber and simpler. I agree that that is the case for religious followers, they lack the ability to think deeply and abstractly which hinders there ability to question dogma. However, your god is inconsistent and not fact based either. Where are your equations showing this god acting through anyone? Do you even have one piece of data? Perhaps you think science can't answer everything as many believers claim. That still does nothing to show there is any truth in religious higher powers.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:11 am |
    • gpark1018

      The guts? So you are saying it takes guts to believe in something that can neither be proven or not proven? You have your predefined notions as to the definition of God and nothing fits. Ok, I get that but do you think that it is even remotely possible that whatever god is (or if you want to call god – reality that is ok too – definitions confine thinking) he is merely the existence of all things. Done...no back-story...no agenda...or perhaps an agenda not fully understood.

      I can't take anyone who would insult another person's position after READING it in an article feedback seriously at all. You are an intellectual brawler who is more interested in finding holes as they see them than in understand another way of thinking.

      MY use of the word god to mean the universe is an attempt to tie together beliefs and science. The universe and god are interchangeable logically, except one seems mechanical whereas the other with purpose. I am not sure which is true, and neither can anyone with certainty.

      I feel that a lot of people have been hurt by religion, and the people here that attack seem to have a particular grudge – I get that too.

      March 25, 2013 at 7:25 am |
  13. Shecky

    I feel sorry for atheists. Their lives must be so meaningless and empty.
    May God bless atheists. They need His blessing the most.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:41 am |
    • Norm

      Todd Stiefel
      The anyti-Christ comes forward.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:43 am |
    • Luis Wu

      I feel sorry for religious people, they live in a delusional fantasy world of invisible supernatural beings. They don't have a good grip on reality and obviously aren't very intelligent.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:43 am |
    • Godless America`

      Get used to it. Religion is quickly becoming a minor aspect of mainstream culture.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:43 am |
    • donna

      not empty at all. I know that what's happening right here and right now, this is it. No do-over. Once you're in the ground, game over. Actually living life as if it's the only one I get!

      March 24, 2013 at 10:44 am |
    • gager

      Wrong in so many ways...

      March 24, 2013 at 10:47 am |
    • Face-Palm

      Wow, a deluded child sits in the shadows of ignorance sucking its own thumb as it tries to insult those of us grown up enough to stand tall in the sunshine of truth and reality.

      The irony of your statement is far too thick for your dull blade to ever cut thru.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:47 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      My life is far from empty and far from meaningless. I'm simply good without god and as a direct result of dropping the imaginary friend, my life is in fact more fulfilling. I do good because I see the necessity of it in a world full of hate and chaos. I love my friends and family unconditionally. My common-law husband is also Atheist with a huge heart and a brilliant mind. We base our lives on the here and now, not in some false premise of being rewarded in the next life b/c we see no evidence to support that next life.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:49 am |
    • sqeptiq

      What is empty is your ability to think outside your own little narrow mind.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:51 am |
    • End Religion

      Nurse, please show Norm to his padded cell... STAT!

      March 24, 2013 at 10:57 am |
  14. donna

    I saw him at the Reason Rally last year, I wish it were a yearly event. I could never come out as an atheist at work I'd be very afraid of my bosses reaction

    March 24, 2013 at 10:41 am |
    • Craig

      Yea.. maybe he could hold rallies weekly, and you could come together with people of similar beliefs, and "praise" every word that comes from his mouth as your own personal truth..

      March 24, 2013 at 10:55 am |
    • End Religion

      I was there. The sea of people was an amazing thing to behold. Streams of people constantly coming out of the metro station even hours after it had started.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:00 am |
  15. scallywag

    There are many atheists and agnostics in 'mericuh today. But they are afraid to say much about it, for fear of prosecution. They're more prosecuted than any group today. Just try running for office if you admit that. Or getting and keeping certain jobs here.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:40 am |
    • jasonedw

      It is because many atheists leaders of the past have been fascists and murdering dictators and depots. Christians certainly has its own history of atrocities, but not in modern times when compared to the times of Stalin etc.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:46 am |
    • Hacard

      How are they prosecuted?

      March 24, 2013 at 10:47 am |
    • sqeptiq

      I think you are confusing prosecution with persecution.

      March 24, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
  16. Face-Palm

    If God is real, then why lie? Why lie to yourself? Why lie to the world? If God is real just follow truth. Why are you so afraid of truth? Isn’t God inseparable from truth? Why hide in the shadows sucking your thumb?

    March 24, 2013 at 10:39 am |
  17. inspiration for the rest of you

    Lack of understanding actual reality can be very detrimental to your health. Most people would agree with that. Why religion?

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

      A theory is not a fact. It's a belief based on a set of facts were you draw a conclusion of something that may have likely occured off a set(s) of information. However the bing bang theory goes against biology that states life can only come from life not an inadamant object like stars exploding. So at somepoint there had to be a source from which all life came. I don't have the answers not intelligent enough or insightful enough. I'm not a religious person but I do chose to name that source or power God.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:58 am |
  18. Peter

    No! Don't worry about the questions. Just get quiet. It will happen.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:39 am |
  19. jasonedw

    The best way to handle people like this guy is just to ignore them, including their idiotic lawsuits. If we had principals, school leadership etc. that didn't cave in to these lawsuit threats, most of them would be dropped or thrown out by a judge. At the very least, just don't pay for an attorney and go to court yourself. It's still better than just caving in.

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

      Lawyers sit at the right hand of Satan

      March 24, 2013 at 10:44 am |
  20. Mr. Duckworth

    Interesting but predictable article. I knew this guy had to have worked around scientists (sure enough the family owned Laboratory making pharmaceuticals).. It's just as much of a leap of blind faith to believe in God (with no scientific proof) as it is to believe in the big bang theory like most Atheists tend to, and from that their ancestor humans emerged from a swamp somewhere. What caused the initial spark of creation ?? Scientists have no clue either – so they're following blind faith too. BTW big Pharma companies (to which his family is linked) has a very vested interest in opposing conservative religions – as they want the abortion drug industry to grow, as it is now it's a billion dollar industry so they sure don't want that money to go away.. Don't be fooled folks, follow the money, God bless the Truth, abortion is a human rights violation.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:38 am |
    • inspiration for the rest of you

      Big bang theory is not a belief, it's a recognition of the facts as they are. Accept it. Educate yourself.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:41 am |
    • clarity

      Christians have the most abortions in the U.S., right? How can you judge broadly without knowing how each person has communicated with God? What if God has advised a mother-to-be that she should abort a child that is destined to be a sinner of the most heinous kind (the kind destroyed by God before Noah)? Until you know the specific reasons in each case, your broad judgment of your fellow Christian smacks of someone who thinks they know what God is thinking; who thinks they know how God has spoken to each person that believes in him.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:45 am |
    • dan mckeown

      That makes no sense. You say that pharma industry wants morning after pill use to grow so they can make more money so they oppose religions?

      Do you know how little is actually made on that? The vast majority is made off of erection pills like Viagra (billions).
      the industry even makes more off of birth control pills. Morning after pill is a one shot deal. 1 pill and that's that. Basic economics would tell you that the money makers are things that are daily use items like heart meds.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:46 am |
    • Mr. Duckworth

      Sorry Mr Inspiration, try again – "Theories" do not equal facts,,, that would be why they call them theories. But even is there is growing evidence on this- theory, my main point was Scientists have zero clue as to the initial spark that initiated it all. All – great comment by the great actor Anthony Hopkins who said (and I paraphrase): "How could anyone be an Atheist ?? That must be like living in a jail cell with now windows". Great statement.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:47 am |
    • inspiration for the rest of you

      Dumbworth – a scientific theory is not a "theory". Educate yourself about what it means.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • Mr. Duckworth

      Dan – do you really think there's only "one" drug associated with abortion?? Ok keep your head in the sand. There are multiple drugs involved at the and many stages of human life. In any case it's easily researched if you're serious. In New York City Alone (which includes the 5 boroughs) – 70% – this is fact – 70% of pregnancies ended in abortion. Now think of the rest of the world. Get the picture? Abortion's hugest supporters and funders have a vested interest in money. Follow the money, if you can't see the connection – then there's a wonderful bridge I'd love to sell you.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:54 am |
    • Lew

      Then explain why he was brought up in a structured catholic household? He seems to be first generation atheist.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:55 am |
    • Mr. Duckworth

      Inspiration – get your money back at whatever "school" you went to, you got a bad deal junior. Like most insecure debaters, you turn to insult when you run out of logic. But, you seem to believe you have scientific knowledge, so stop avoiding the key question – what exactly do Scientific Atheists believe initiated our Universe? (This should be interesting folks…) Now after you've reflected alone and admitted that you have no clue to that question – this brings me to my initial premise; It's just as much of a blind leap of faith to be an Atheist, as it is to be a Religious person. Thank you, game / set / match.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:01 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Get this...Duckworth still thinks that bridge he "bought" is his. Ha!

      March 24, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
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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.