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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. YouMayDisagree

    I have kids, trust me if god exist she is a 5 year old girl, that is my only logic explanation for the world we live in...that or quantum mechanics.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:32 am |
    • Ralph_in_FL

      My guess would be Cthulhu on PCP.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:38 am |
  2. atheist Realism

    I find it interesting that a god took six days to create the universe and rested on the seventh.

    Seems he forgot to clean up, leaving all those comets and meteors flying around. Guess he's not that perfect after all.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:32 am |
  3. Thomas Paine

    As to the Christian system of faith, it appears to me as a species of Atheism – a sort of religious denial of God. It professes to believe in a man rather than in God. It is a compound made up Chiefly of Manism with but little Deism, and is an near Atheism as twilight is to darkness. It introduces between man and his Maker an opaque body, which it calls a Redeemer, as the moon introduces her opaque self between the earth and the sun, and it produces by this means a religious, or an irreligious eclipse of light. It has put the whole orbit of reason into shade.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:31 am |
    • atheist Realism

      man is not the center of the universe,,even though the popes used to tell us they were. Man is purely incidental,,

      March 24, 2013 at 11:34 am |
    • Junger

      WAT

      March 24, 2013 at 11:34 am |
  4. 633music

    No matter how much "evidence" I am shown, I still do not believe in atheists...funny!

    March 24, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • Unintelligent Designer

      That's too bad, because your approval means so much to me.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:32 am |
    • Gadflie

      Still straining at fleas and swallowing camel's eh?

      March 24, 2013 at 11:32 am |
    • NickZadick

      and I don't believe that you really believe that your club will get you to spend an eternity in fairyland in the sky!

      March 24, 2013 at 11:32 am |
    • Moby Schtick

      It makes me happy when stupid people describe their stupid reasons for not agreeing with the perspective I hold.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:33 am |
    • 633music

      Great arguments....but still lacking...sorry, still do not believe...

      March 24, 2013 at 11:34 am |
    • 633music

      I think atheists should be called angryists, I mean...if they really existed...but they do not.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:37 am |
    • 633music

      Bible and religion aside, evolution is a fairytale without equal, just a ridiculous notion. Get a new religion guys, this one is broken.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • Moby Schtick

      I don't want you to disbelieve, 633. I want stupid people to be god believers. I only want intelligent people to be atheists.

      Don't stop.......believin'....Holy on to that fee--eee--eeelin'

      March 24, 2013 at 11:43 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Just because you think evolution is a lie does not make your belief therefore true.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:53 am |
  5. Prehistoric shark captured on film

    CHOMP CHOMP CHOMP goes the bible

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

    March 24, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • Thai Researchers Discover 100-Million-Year-Old Crocodile Fossile

      THE FAIRY A FOSSIL YET?

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwD_hjq_V7U&w=640&h=360]

      March 24, 2013 at 11:38 am |
  6. Javier Mercado

    It's a shame the catholic church with it's strict, but useless rituals, ruined this guy's chance to meet the real Jesus. All he had to do was study the Bible (which the catholic church does not do) and he would have seen how all the prophesies have been fulfilled up to the next one coming: the return of Jesus for his church. When he gets left behind with the rest of the non-believers, how will he explain this? It's a shame that the road he choose and those who blindly follow him will take them straight to hell for eternity.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • tony

      He probably looked at the heavens for signs as god said to do in Genesis 1:14, and saw none, except astrophysics.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:32 am |
    • Gadflie

      You need to read it again kid, the single prophesy that Jesus repeated and paraphrased the most often did NOT come true before the specific deadline that he set. False prophet indeed!

      March 24, 2013 at 11:33 am |
    • Keith

      Many of us that only found hate and shame in the church you call the truth have found solace in the Catholic Church.

      More of us that have attended college know that the "Bible" which was created by the "Catholic Church" doesn't contain all the truth and it is not the inspired word of "God" but the words of fallible men.

      Your judgment of others would lead me to believe that your brand of "Christianity" is a detriment to love and cooperation of mankind.

      March 24, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
  7. MandoZink

    Theists would benefit highly from a comprehensive lesson on the history of mythologies. By the way, here's my take on Pascal' Wager:

    1. Line up all of the gods that man has had since we started plugging the gaps of our ignorance with myths.
    2. Notice there are thousands.
    3. Pick one, knowing the odds are you are doomed!
    4. Now cheat and pick all of them.

    Oh darn. It's God's lottery. He'll make you stop after number 3.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:29 am |
  8. mike from iowa

    How about the fact that this god has never returned. 2,000 years waiting for Jesus. What's the plan? What kind of leader keeps it's followers in the dark, unproductive, confused, killing each other? Seriously, if you can believe there is a god behind religion, then you are delusional.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • tony

      There is no detectable of evidence so far of a god's interference in the Universe running itelf for the last 13.8 Billion years

      March 24, 2013 at 11:31 am |
    • 633music

      Good questions...if you really want the answer, all you have to do is ask.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:31 am |
    • Bob Carlson

      This bear repeating what I have already stated.

      When one person is delusional, we call him insane, when multiple people are delusional, it is called religion.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:33 am |
    • fisherjason

      Exactly! An iphone app/updates would be good, a television commercial every now and then would be nice: "Hey everyone! It's me, God! ...Just thought I'd pop in and say hello, and remind everyone "thou shalt not kill"! Okay, got that? Just want to make sure I'm clear! NO KILLING! Okay, bye!!!

      March 24, 2013 at 11:39 am |
  9. Dug

    My neighbors have planted white croses on each side of their drive. On each in big letters is "He is risen", now THAT is truly "in your face".

    March 24, 2013 at 11:27 am |
  10. Morality without God

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCovYF51qHE&w=640&h=360]

    March 24, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      well-said. I would like to read some posts of those who claim that you must have religion to have morality, or that the Abrahamic god is in any way moral.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:34 am |
  11. BigSkyHumanist

    Should we really care about what people do or do not believe in? People have all kinds of strange beliefs, but what those are is not important unless one acts on a belief that harms others. As a fan of Jefferson, I would like to remind people that religion is not the issue, except for those priests and preachers who think they can use political power to try and make people believe in their God.

    But, that’s impossible. Those in power can make us do things against our will, but they can't make anyone believe in their God. That is freedom of conscious, that can’t be taken away. That is what the 1st amendment is about, not freedom of religion, but freedom of the mind.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • *

      * conscience (not conscious)

      March 24, 2013 at 11:55 am |
  12. Todd

    Some one has posted that it is both arrogant and ignorant to say, "I know the truth." - how is it not arrogant and ignorant to say, "you cannot know the truth"? If some one cannot know the truth, isn't that a truth statement? Doesn't this undercut what is being said?

    Another person said something to the effect that atheism is not organized. Isn't it the point being made by Todd Stiefel – atheists need to organize? Isn't disorganization or non-organization a basic tenet of being atheist?

    March 24, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • Moby Schtick

      "Truth" is a difficult concept to deal with because it's not clearly defined. What is truth? –is a valid question because of the function of "truth" as we deal with it and use it.

      Atheism is a lack of belief, and lacks in belief can be irrelevant or sometimes can act as a unifying factor. For example, people who don't believe in the Loch Ness Monster have little need to come together in unity. However, if a society started using belief in Nessie as a basis for laws and scheduling the work week and determining who could run and hold political office, then those non believers might want to get together and work towards some common goals.

      Does that answer your questions?

      March 24, 2013 at 11:31 am |
  13. Christian7

    Alexander Polyakov (Soviet mathematician): "We know that nature is described by the best of all possible mathematics because God created it."

    Paul Davies (British astrophysicist): "There is for me powerful evidence that there is something going on behind it all....It seems as though somebody has fine-tuned nature’s numbers to make the Universe....The impression of design is overwhelming."

    "God created everything by number, weight and measure." - Issac Newton

    "The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God" – John F Kennedy

    March 24, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • sjordan

      Yes, great men can sometimes be wrong too. Thanks for pointing that out.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • tony

      If you write lies or ignorance often enough, it gets to sound like the norm.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:29 am |
    • Thomas Paine

      As to the Christian system of faith, it appears to me as a species of Atheism – a sort of religious denial of God. It professes to believe in a man rather than in God. It is a compound made up Chiefly of Manism with but little Deism, and is an near Atheism as twilight is to darkness. It introduces between man and his Maker an opaque body, which it calls a Redeemer, as the moon introduces her opaque self between the earth and the sun, and it produces by this means a religious, or an irreligious eclipse of light. It has put the whole orbit of reason into shade.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • eclectic8

      Thank you. These sound like some pretty reasonable people. That's why the faith vs reason argument is so false.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:32 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      Adding the OPINIONS of others does not add credibilty to the argument. They do not provide any evidence that there are any gods. They only point out their own beliefs.

      Moot point.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:33 am |
    • Christian7

      sjordan, How did you verify that they were wrong? How do you show that the universe was not designed? Do you have any proof?

      March 24, 2013 at 11:42 am |
    • Thomas Paine's assistant

      Sorry, Richard, that was supposed to be a fresh post, not a reply to this one. Noted.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:44 am |
    • Moby Schtick

      Christian7, how can you believe in your god when you've not yet proved that the universe wasn't farted into existence by an invisible unicorn? If you haven't yet proved that the universe wasn't farted out of an invisible unicorn, get to work.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:45 am |
  14. mike from iowa

    You can't disprove the existence of an Invisible Flying Spaghetti Monster, so I am pretty sure one exists.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:25 am |
    • eclectic8

      lol. good luck with that.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • Bob Carlson

      The Pastafarian way of life is the only true one!

      March 24, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • Christian7

      You do not know that the Flying spaghetti monster exist because you can't prove that he does not exist; But it is illogical to say that the flying spaghetti monster does not exist if you lack the ability to search everywhere to verify that he does not exist. I do not know if the Flying spaghetti monster exists or not. I can say that I don't think he exists, but I am illogical if I say he does not exist, because it is impossible to know this.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:31 am |
    • Christian7

      You logic failed at the "so" part. You jumped to conclusions. That is illogical. You would have been far better off giving some the reasons why you think the flying spaghetti monster exists. Did he predict the future like the Bible did? IS there any reason to believe that he exists?

      March 24, 2013 at 11:34 am |
  15. YouMayDisagree

    What is the best and longest existing energy source in the universe? A neutron star that is a pulsar maybe? This is where we should look for alien intelligence, probably brains in jars all connected in a virtual network powered by the pulsar for gazillions of years and not traveling through space looking for earth, why would they? I wish I believed in god, in that case such nonsense and stupid thoughts would not cross my mind.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:24 am |
  16. Jeff from Upstate

    If you have doubt, look up Unitarian Universalism.

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

      I admit, the UU's are a fun group.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:29 am |
    • Sunnysmom

      UU's got me questioning the ridiculous notions of some organized religions, but definitely set me on the path of spirituality in the ways I believe to this day. I don't attend anymore but they were great.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:37 am |
  17. atheist Realism

    religion couldn't exist without fear,, Deny it's fear, you have the makings for a terrorist.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:24 am |
  18. Thomas Jefferson

    Whenever... preachers, instead of a lesson in religion, put [their congregation] off with a discourse on the Copernican system, on chemical affinities, on the construction of government, or the characters or conduct of those administering it, it is a breach of contract, depriving their audience of the kind of service for which they are salaried, and giving them, instead of it, what they did not want, or, if wanted, would rather seek from better sources in that particular art of science.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:24 am |
  19. America

    This guy and others like him are what is destroying the moral and cultural backbone of America. A little higher education and his family's money and all of a sudden he understands our being. Unfortunately a lot of people believe his BS... Just look at the sky and realize that it goes on forever and then tell me that we o not answer to a higher power that created us for a reason.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Well, 'murica, no. Simply looking at the sky is not a reasoned basis for concluding that you have to answer to some "higher power".

      March 24, 2013 at 11:25 am |
    • Gadflie

      Sorry kid, your awe doesn't impress me as evidence of god.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:25 am |
    • John Adams

      The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.

      Thirteen governments [of the original states] thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:25 am |
    • tony

      Actually, that's what the massively funded, religious establishment does.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • buffalo

      Okay. There is no bearded old grandpa guy waiting in the sky to judge you.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • Rob Johnson

      The sky does not go on forever, and even if it did, that doesn't mean we were made by a God for a reason.

      I'm actually more of a "spiritual but not religious" person myself, and not an atheist, but the kind of faulty logic employed in this post is exactly what drives many intelligent people away from organized religion.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:32 am |
    • Chip Smith

      Wow.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:34 am |
    • Sunnysmom

      I would argue it's judgements like yours in all forms that are destroying America.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:40 am |
    • Sunnysmom

      In case you need a scripture to get it...Luke 6:37 – “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven

      March 24, 2013 at 11:43 am |
  20. tony

    Religion still has it that the tsunamis were the work of a loving god

    March 24, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • atheist Realism

      and hell the creation of a compassionate god

      March 24, 2013 at 11:25 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.