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.”
The reason against faith argument is so bogus. You need a millionaire to bank roll this stuff because grass roots people know it's a joke.
LOL. Most of us know there is no god. We just don't care enough to put up billboards.
It would be NICE......... but
Maybe they should not have created the wedge !!!
The wedge strategy is a political and social action plan authored by the Discovery Insti-tute, the hub of the intelligent design movement. The strategy was put forth in a Discovery Insti-tute manifesto known as the Wedge Docu-ment, which describes a broad social, political, and academic agenda whose ultimate goal is to defeat materialism, naturalism, evolution, and "reverse the stifling materialist world view and replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic
And once again more evidence as to how atheists have managed to form their own religion. I really don't care what people believe in the slightest but don't fool yourselves into thinking you don't believe in anything when you fight this hard for your non-belief. And i'm sick and tired of Christians losing their rights and nobody standing up for them.
yep,, not having a disease is a disease and bald is a hair color too.
The need for believers to name atheism as a religion is clearly an example the believers doubt themselves.
Very few atheists have seen his posters, and almost none even know this guy. I hope you realize that.
Look, it's not "fighting for what you believe" to simply state your opinion on the matter. Just because you consider evangelism some big deal does not mean that it is. It's just opening your mouth and spewing your verbal diarrhea all over the place. Just because atheists TALK about why they do not believe does not mean that atheism is a religion or that atheists are "fighting." Try thinking next time.
You're exactly why atheists get so riled up.
Atheism is a religion like fasting is a menu item.
Atheists, freethinkers and humanists do not believe there is no god; they think there is not one.
Atheism is not a religion or a belief – It’s a reasoned conclusion.
Atheism is a “thought process” whereas religion is a “belief system”.
Saying atheism is a religion is like saying not collecting stamps is a hobby.
Saying that committed atheists are “religious zealots” is like claiming that they are “furious sleepers”...
"And i'm sick and tired of Christians losing their rights and nobody standing up for them." Sorry Bob, remind me, what rights have Christians lost? The right to own slaves? The right to keep your daughter from marrying outside her race? Help me out here. I say this partly in jest, but honestly I have NO idea what you are talking about.
He's probably on about losing the "right" to indoctrinate children with his cult's delusions in public schools.
And of course, he forgets that the final arbiters, the members of the Supreme Court, are 100% believers – not a damned atheist among them! So who is taking what rights away from whom?
"And i'm sick and tired of Christians losing their rights and nobody standing up for them"
And I'm tired of xtians wavering on both sides of the fence
Science == GOOD when it is used to save your life from cancer
Science == BAD when it proves your bible is pure myth
We will all have our answer one second after we die. Good luck to all!
You'll know whether the used car runs after you've paid for it and we let you turn the ignition switch.
Would you buy THAT equally dubious proposition?
Or when we'll be able to beat death and live in a virtual network, a true haven, we came up with religious stories because internal life is what we want and god is who we want to be. Virtual world is what will make all this possible. Yes brains in jars all connected and powered by the sun or something like that, maybe this is why we can't find any aliens because the don't live in the "real" world.
Why wait then if it is so much better on the other side, bye now? BTW we are still waiting for Harry Houdini to call home.
Pascal's Wger, Yawn..................... Tried and dispatched centuries ago.
That is an empty threat.
I agree with Jay, that was a lame shot at a Pascal's Wager response. You couldn't come up with something better? Do you honestly believe we're going to pretend to believe in god (the way you are pretending to) on the off chance that there is some punishment waiting for us after we die? Did you miss the part where we don't believe in that? It doesn't scare us because we don't believe in that. And actually, you just showed that you also don't have faith TAWE so you don't believe either.
These activist atheists are a very small minority. There are a ton of atheists out there, including me, and we have a 'live and let live' philosophy. Many, if not most, of us were believers at one time, raised that way. I remember that my religious belief was from an honest place. Eventually my investigation and thought brought me to my present atheism, which is also from an honest place. So I will not condemn a believer. I will acknowledge their belief and respect it. I ask the same in return. What I think all of us can agree on is when belief or atheism is used as a wedge to push an unfair agenda. Fair criticism is just that.
A lot more religious leaders and followers push on innocent children's minds than atheists do (or even can)
Most of us atheists feel the same way. The problem isn't with us, it's in the way people treat us when they find out we're atheist. When I tell people that the looks they give me and the way they treat me become almost like they are offended to be in my company. This is the point in what Todd is trying to do. let people know that we're just as (if not more) moral and good people as any religious person. We don't want to be treated like we're somehow lower than the believers. We just want to live our lives in peace with our belief in no deity.
FAMOUS 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.
“It is not truth that matters, but victory.”
― Adolf Hitler
Among the many lies that gullible Christians blindly believe is that Hitler was an atheist.
In fact, he was a committed Catholic, and said so on many occasions.
Do we atheists hold his Catholicism against him? No, because that wasn't what motivated him.
It WAS what motivated Torquemada and the Crusaders and witch hunters, however.
Hitler was a Roman Catholic. Stalin was an atheist.
Did Hitler himself kill all those people? No, they were done by German soldiers who were primarily Christian.
Nice try, Adolf Hitler used Christianity to boost his political career and use it as a weapon to alienate his opponents. Sound familiar?
Actually, HItler was a christian and a believer until his death – it was a big reason for his hatred of Jews. Washington, on the other hand, was very bland about religion. He was a Deist who believed in a non-intervening deity who may or may not have existed.
A little more research on Hitler,his Catholic faith,his belief in divine providence and the role of the church in enabling Nazism would be in order.Your argument is old and tiresome.
When we hang the capitalists they will sell us the rope we use.
HA ha ha ha... What a sick mind of an Atheist.
Un-known fool. Lets quote the bible on CNN. That will solve everyone's problems.
Hitler was a Catholic. Nor was nazi Germany Atheist, they believed in a bunch of pagan and some christian beliefs mixed together.
Speaking of trugh, you should try it sometime. Hitler was Catholic.
I bet your the kind of open minded person who loves Islam and never makes gross generalizations about the actions carried out it its name.
Einstein....at the age of 12 years I thought religion was made up of childish but honorable fables.
George Washington is not the cornerstone of American or even human philosophy. Aside from being a military leader and the 1st US president, he really didn't amount to much beyond that other than nostalgia (misused by people like you). Hitler was Catholic, and never renounced his religious beliefs, and used them (as misguided as they were) to promote his rise to power. He was also never denounced or excommunicated by the Catholic church.
Note that this troll has no reply to the fact that Washington was a Deist, not a Christian. You just can't fix stupid.
Hitler was a Catholic... but I'm sure you already knew that...
Washington refused to take communion and Hitler referred to his 'duty' to god in Mein Kamph. His soldiers all wore a belt buckle that read 'Got mit unser', with God on our side.
Hitler was not an atheist, he was a Christian and publicly endorsed Christianity for most of his life.
Athiesm is just another religion, and now we have a face to attach as an athiest equivilent to pope. Look at how religions behave, their primary purpose is to spread the word of their belief. In the case of most religions, it is a belief in God. How is Athiesm any different? People such as Todd Stiefel are going to the same extent as any priest to spread their faith in nothingness. ACtually, because Athiesm isn't officially any religion, it's followers have more power than priests do these days because Athiesm has the law on their side. Look at the effort Athiest go to to prevent Christians from enjoying their holidays. They sue cities and states to remove icons of the Christian faith from court rooms, parks and any other public forum they can attack, in much the same way that Christianity and Islam have gone about spreading their faith. The difference here is that the Athiest use the courtroom as their weapon. Atheist even have their own literature to convert believers into non-believers. Just google Athiesm and you will find all sorts of web pages devoted to it, with literature you can print out to show to their religious friends. Now, with the help of news outlets such as CNN, we can get an Athiest Sunday sermon. If Athiesm truly wasn't a religion, then why is there all this attempt to convert people to their belief? If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, flies like a duck, then call it a duck.
Are the Democratic and Republican parties religions? They are trying convince you their beliefs are true and you should vote for their guy. Is Coca-Cola a religion? They are trying to convert your from Pepsi.
If it thinks like a fool, posts like a fool then you are a fool.
You sir,were an atheist when you were born.You sir,are an atheist NOW.Billions believe that if you do not believe the Koran is the TRUE word of Allah you are destined for h e l l.Why o why can't you believe this simple truth?It is SO obvious.Open your eyes to the truth as told by Mohammad....does this make sense?You ARE an atheist,when it comes to 1000s of other beliefs.We just go one step further-get it?
You know, I think you're reasoning is flawed here. The point of Stiefel is to take Atheism, that is Un-Belief in a God, out of the closet and out of the realm of a mere negative and to make of it a positive. To be an atheist is difficult for many reasons, not the least of which is that there are few forums that one can find to get together with others who share your view of things, so there is an isolation inherent that makes it difficult to effect positive change as a group. That is what Stiefel is trying to address. There is no doubt in my mind that if humanity focused its attention on what is real instead of what is unreal, we would be further along as a planet by now. Myths and legends like those in the Bible are powerful because they are symbolic of the deepest fears and aspirations of the marvelous story-making, loving, hating, creative creatures that we are, but they are not "facts" and we should not be basing our group decisions upon them. Why churches, rich as they are, do not have to pay taxes for example when the rest of us do is something that beggars belief. Why should I, an unbeliever, subsidize the Catholic Church, or any other church for that matter? If you want to dedicate yourself to a certain mythology great, but don't ask others to pay for it. Religion, in my opinion, gets far too much material privilege and offers way to little in the way of progress to humanity. Atheism is by definition not another religion.
I wish people would stop saying Atheism is a religion. IT'S NOT. Atheism is the opposite of THEISM. That means we DON'T believe in god. Religion is an organized belief IN a higher power, not the lack thereof. What are you trying to accomplish by saying it's a religion? You just sound dumb and uneducated when you say that.
You want to know what religion is the best ? It's a legacy of loving kindness and compassion toward your fellowmen that counts. it's how you treat your fellowmen now that may someday leave an everlasting impression to remember you. Nothing else matter.
Like killing millions in the name of religion! Wake up..
Sounds like Humanism, Chedar.
God Bless this man for helping spread the word that He doesn't exist!
It shouldn't take anyone a degree at Duke University to realize that the bible is a collection of fables.
Very true. Also, how do mythological stories about a nomadic desert people, subsisting on goats and goat milk, with no science, technology, or eduction, have any relevance for us in the 21st century?
Why is an atheism article on a belief blog?
Why are religious people reading an article about the growth of atheism?
For the same reason that articles about why people don't vote appear in stories on politics.
For two reasons actually. First of all, the subject is clearly is of interest to people that believe in god. Second, it's an assumption on your part that atheists don't have beliefs.
No matter how much "evidence" I am shown, I still do not believe in atheists...
Why is a belief blog on the front page of CNN news?
Religion is obviously a belief and not news.
All things in this Universe is Energy. Famous Einstein (who was an Atheist) formula for Energy is E=mc to the power of 2. Energy is Mass time Speed of Light to the power of 2. Energy is neither created or destroyed. It only changes it's form. Sum Total of all energy in the Universe is Constant...only the form changes. So....when you die, your body (which is one form of Energy) is eaten up by bacteria and converted into another form of matter or energy. Your soul (one form of energy) floats as part of the Universe Energy. Heysoos (Jesus) is floating around and won't be there to shake your hand! "Wake up O brainwashed sheep/goats! " Don't let the priests molest your children in the name of Heysoos!!
Einstein was NOT an atheist. He was an agnostic/deist. He claimed not to *know* (agnosticism), but he suspected/believed in a "superior reasoning power" (his words) (deism).
Ray...Einstein did not believe in a personal god (like Heysoos). He believed in a the Force (Energy) that kept the Universe from falling apart!
Look up "Spinoza's God" and see what "reasoning power" Einstein contemplated.
The very definition of religious atheism.
Is not collecting stamps a hobby?
Atheist here, but I am not in favor of religion failing. At least not while I still breathe. I get the atheists form their own moral code. For me, raised catholic, I saw the good my religion tried to instill in people and took much of that with me when I moved on. Fact is, I honestly have little faith that without the moral guidance many religions provide, there is a segment of the population that would be without their shepherd. Not everyone on this planet does well as a free individual with nothing to follow, not to mention the stripping away of their fairy tale ending.
No thanks. I will risk holy wars right now to avoid the societal breakdown that would occur if we were sans religion. Slow and steady toward a religion free society? Sure. Just make it reeeeal slow please, lots of people are still not ready to face that reality.
You say that as if religious people are more moral in general. That is absolutely not true.
Morality? What morality positive can religion provide that can't be provided by reason, conscience, and empathy – things that, as societal animals, we have evolved to have? On the other hand, the morality of a lot of religions – women as second class citizens, gays as abominations. the justification of murder if someone is apostate – well, I think the world could without that religious morality.
Religion was a good guidance strategy when humans had no control over life and no explanations for life's many mysteries, now however we came to a point where we as humans can be more responsible for the things we do because we have the power to understand and influence life. We came to this point with our own brains and we can move on with our own powers without the need for unseen, unheard and untouchable supreme being.
Religion is here for the same reason any ideology is here. As a collection of ideas, it was very successful at surviving and reproducing. It isn't that successful at surviving and reproducing without having some benefit.
It's embarrassing to say this, but I'm in agreement. Many people cannot live without some retarded fake being telling them good and evil, rewarding and punishing behaviors. I mean people actually believe that without god, you cannot be a good person... It shows many people just lack the general concept that a good person doesn't get rewarded by some fake god. Regions claim they preach love and friendship to bond people, but the reality is, they all have one thing in common, and that's fear of gods wrath.
please consult the bible and see what it considers moral. Some people decide to pick and choose things from the bible to base their morals on, this is not what was intended. The bible is an all or nothing book, and since it fosters abhorrent ideologies like slavery, it is on the whole an abhorrent moral guide.
Atheism is a belief, not an organization or religion. He is exploiting Atheism into a money making religion like the rest of them. Don't be a part of this if you are a true atheist. Because you will become their sheep.
Psst – he's giving money away! Okay, now put your tin foil hat back on.
Wow Jon, read the article
Aononbid – LOL if you feel like your prosecuted by believers. Where the heck are you? Holy cow, like, religious people exist. Do religious people actively walk up to your and start prosecuting you? If that's the case I bet you get all huffy and start arguing. You should learn how to peacefully end the conversation and brush it off and go on with your life.
Strange thing is, some believers just can't let it go.
Don't be silly. People aren't getting prosecuted in the streets. They make court rooms for that.
So basically he lost his faith while being indoctrinated by liberal college professors...isn't that how most lose it?
LOL – truth must have a liberal bias!
no, most people use their brains and realize that a book written by uneducated men roaming the desert probably doesn't have the answers to the questions of the universe.
Some books against Deism fell into my hands; they were said to be the substance of the sermons which had been preached at Boyle’s Lectures. It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them. For the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to be much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist.
Yes, Boyle was trying to defend Christianity, not disbelief...
The comments from the theists here are a clear display of why this work is necessary.
Doesn't your god demand that you love us atheists? So, why all the hate?
I've never met anyone that can truly be called a christian, not a single person that calls themselves a follower of Christ is in accordance with even the most basic teachings of the zombie carpenter.
Rather broad generalization there don't you think?
Jason, How silly you are. Clearly this man hates Christianity. What else could explain his desire to waste huge amounts of money on such a nasty campaign of mockery, disrespect and petty schoolyard insults. Clearly he hates Christians. The big question is: why would CNN give this hatmonger any credibility at all. What a sham news outfit CNN has become!
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.