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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. bencoates57

    Evangelical atheism. Got to love it. If you need someone tell you there's no God, then you might as well believe.

    March 24, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
    • jd

      I like that – with Organs and Choir – readings from the book of Stiefel chapters 3 verse 22 – With money and resolve comes great influence for Stiefel. He has the ear of many

      March 24, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
    • Jason

      Every atheist I know self-converted. There's no proselytizing for reason, reason just exists... unlike your imaginary friend.

      March 24, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
    • isolate

      Stiefel is not out to "convert" people to atheism, which is an individual intellectual decision different for everyone; he's simply trying to bring atheism more into public view. There are a lot of us out there, and until recently we've made no overt attempt to stand up and be counted. Religious types tend to have a herd mentality because they have a common point to rally around. Every religion is the One True Religion to the people who believe in it, and they reinforce each other's belief through a common holy book, churches, group prayers and fellowship.

      Atheism will never have the equivalent of tent revivals or televangelists, simply because atheists have nothing to rally around: each atheist's worldview is slightly different and there are no holy scriptures or churches involved. We're not interested in "converting" anyone, we simply want Christians to tune down their never-ending sales pitch, stop assuming that they are somehow better than everyone else and accept that most people can live upstanding lives without a celestial GPS guiding their every move.

      March 24, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
  2. atheist Realism

    why do conservatives do the same? Then again, your comments proves there is no belief in a soul. If you really believed in one, you'd realize the soul would go to your magical socialist heaven.

    March 24, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  3. Cal The Greatest Troll In The History Of The Internet Newlan

    Amen

    March 24, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  4. atheist Realism

    the big bang was likely one of an infinite number of big bangs,, as the universe is likely one of an infinite number. With infinity, no god needed.

    March 24, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
    • Cal The Greatest Troll In The History Of The Internet Newlan

      Infinity does not exist heathen.

      March 24, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
    • jd

      Everything runs by itself.
      As far as you know anyway

      March 24, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
    • Jim

      There cannot be an infinite number of bangs because you cannot have 'infinity plus 1' when the next one occurs. This is also called The impossibility of traversing the infinite. Thus an actual infinite could come to exist only if all came to exist at the same time.You cannot have an infinite number of big bangs. Now please PROVE this (infinite bangs) IS possible by ACTUAL evidence, not by acting like a philosophical possibility is fact.

      March 24, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Just because numbers carry on into infinity in both directions does not mean that addition and subtraction are meaningless and that finite number sets don't function. Infinity does account for what we observe, provided we are not observing infinity from an infinite perspective.

      March 24, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • davidpun

      Really! It was one of many Big Bangs? And you know this based on what exactly?
      And if the Universe is defined to be everything that exists, please tell me what you actually mean by "one of an infinite number." and how you plan to prove this according to the principles of the scientific method.
      My feeling is that at least religious people had the sense to understand that they really needed something much bigger than them to explain the physical Universe, even though what they came up with didn't actually explain anything. It appears that atheists spout a similar line of irrational nonsense but don't have the intelligence to realize that their "principles" are completely inadequate to explain what they are talking about.
      Oh and by the way, atheists love to portray themselves as if their ideas are founded in science. This particular move most recently was championed by Richard Dawkins of course. Dawkins hasn't actually done anything resembling science for at least 20years and even before that I can't find anything that establishes him as a scientist, let alone a notable scientist. What people, including Dawkins, don't see is that the real driving force behind this atheist culture is actually the publishing Industry who found that it was a spectacular source of revenue and have cultivated people like Dawkins and Harris for years now so that they can keep publishing new books.

      March 24, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • atheist Realism

      if there was one,, there'd had been many. Rather logical.

      March 24, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Nobody can prove an infinite number of big bangs, and nobody is asking you to believe it. An infinite number of big bangs would explain the reality we observe. But that is only one possible solution. Since we know that our big bang occurred, then we know of one example and there might be more. Since we don't know of any gods, then there's no examples for us to test and measure. We can test and measure our big bang. We can't test and measure gods who make themselves invisible and undetectable.

      March 24, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • isolate

      That's only one of many hypotheses about the universe's origin. It remains unproven because scientists have not yet discovered a method of testing it. When they find it, the last piece of the puzzle will fit into place.

      March 24, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
  5. Cal The Greatest Troll In The History Of The Internet Newlan

    Please let us pray "God loves us, we love God, we're all a happy family, Amen" I seek out CAL of the Newlan faith, please friend I cannot find your comments in this mass of atheistic gibberish. Let yourself be known friend, and enlighten me on the atrocities presented in this Cable News Network article.

    March 24, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
    • I Am God

      I don't think he will ever be returning. He sort of went off the deep end last night saying free will does not exist.

      March 24, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
  6. Pokydoke

    Mr. Stiefel you are my hero, I have been an Atheist since early childhood and have suffered at the hands of bigoted Christians for many years, always telling me that I was going to hell and insulting me by praying for me. Never an acknowledgment that I have a right to my own opinion.

    March 24, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
  7. Face-Palm

    Is empty stupidity now the weapon?

    March 24, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
  8. atheist Realism

    seems the christian god isn't so perfect. Instead of resting on the seventh day, he should have been cleaning up. There are dangerous asteroids, comets and meteors floating around because of his mess.

    March 24, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • Jeesh

      Good point. Also if being a priest, pastor, minister, shaman, choir master, organist, etc. are considered jobs and receive pay, why the fvck are they working on Sunday against their god's command?

      March 24, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
    • Goodfella

      Ya. they built this huge muther church just down the road and it gets so busy this time of year, easter and all, that they hire parking attendants to direct the traffic. Why the hell are they paying people to work on the Sabbath, bunch of hypocrites. I guess it is all about the money, jesus my ass.

      March 24, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
  9. Face-Palm

    ignorant fools taunt me. Let them explain their prison. I’m sorry for my education.

    March 24, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • atheist Realism

      religion is a prison, I agree

      March 24, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
  10. Reality

    Think infinity and recycling with the Big Bang expansion followed by the shrinking reversal called the Gib Gnab and recycling back to the Big Bang repeating the process on and on forever. Human life and Earth are simply a minute part of this chaotic, stochastic, expanding, shrinking process disappearing in three- five billion years with the burn out of the Sun and maybe returning in another five billion years with different life forms but still subject to the v-garies of its local star.

    What we do know: (from the fields of astrophysics, biology, biochemistry, archeology, nuclear physics, geology and the history of religion)

    1. The Sun will burn out in 3-5 billion years so we have a time frame.

    2. Asteroids continue to circle us in the nearby asteroid belt.

    3. One wayward rock/comet and it is all over in a blast of permanent winter.

    4. There are enough nuclear weapons to do the same job.

    5. Most contemporary NT exegetes do not believe in the Second Coming so apparently there is no concern about JC coming back on an asteroid or cloud of raptors/rapture.

    6. All stars will eventually extinguish as there is a limit to the amount of hydrogen in the universe. When this happens (100 trillion years?), the universe will go dark. If it does not collapse and recycle, the universe will end.

    7. Super, dormant volcanoes off the coast of Africa and under Yellowstone Park could explode catalytically at any time ending life on Earth.

    8. Many of us are part Neanderthal and/or Denisovan. For a $199 check and mouth swab sent to the National Geographic's Genographic Project you can find out if your relatives co-mingled with these extinct species of hominids.

    Bottom line: our apocalypse will start between now and 3-5 billion CE. The universe apocalypse, 100 trillion years?

    March 24, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • isolate

      I think you mean "cataclysmically," catalysis plays no part in volcanic eruptions.

      March 24, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
    • Reality

      Oops, you are correct make that: "Super, dormant volcanoes off the coast of Africa and under Yellowstone Park could explode "cataclysmically at any time ending life on Earth. "

      March 24, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
  11. 633music

    Bob, you ask a question that, no offense intended.... you should already know the answer to.
    No one should have to ask...if is obvious.
    Re Post

    March 24, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
  12. Pshap

    Man, this guy is so simplistic, like most (all?) atheists. At least be intellectually rigorous and call yourself agnostic. This is what happens when your conception of godliness and spirituality don't extend beyond kindergarten.

    March 24, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
    • OldSchool

      Atheism and agnosticism are essentially the same thing, agnostics are just too cowardly to use the word atheist because of the stigma associated with it. Atheism is the lack of belief in god/gods simply based on lack of evidence, which is the same position of an agnostic. Contrary to popular belief, atheists don't "hate god" or entirely discount the possibility of some "deity", they just take the intellectual and pragmatic position that no evidence has been shown to prove such a thing.

      March 24, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Agnosticism and atheism are two different things. Most agnostics are also atheists and vice versa. I am an agnostic atheist. I neither claim to have spiritual knowledge nor do I believe in god.

      March 24, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
    • Saving the earth,one pithy comment at a time

      Upon what should a person,that has not acquired your level of awareness,base these conceptions?

      March 24, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
  13. Face-Palm

    why do the liars feel sad? Why pretend? Why not be honest?

    March 24, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
    • atheist Realism

      something the religionist need to leartn

      March 24, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
  14. The Seeker

    Let's forget for a moment the old concepts of a Christian or Muslim or other religion-inspired being. These are for the most part a product of culture. You believe what your friends, parents, and those around you believe.

    Most religions are self-contradictory and/or just plain silly. But none of this negates the possibility of God.

    If life were akin to a river, we see the surface, and believe that is all that exists. And yet the surface is only the smallest part of the river. The rest we can't see and therefore do not understand. Not understanding makes us afraid. Fear turns us to religion or something else, such as denying the river exists at all.

    The river does not need our belief to exist. The river requires no worship. And yet it is there.

    March 24, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
    • chanel # 5

      chanel # 5
      FU_CK_Jesus
      Thank you sir, you are doing the human race a great service... you should go down in history as a more important figure than jesus

      but you like this

      thanks my love. i'll just continue posting it elsewhere explaining you won't allow it here

      March 24, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
    • isolate

      In your last line, replace "river" with "universe" and you've defined atheism.

      March 24, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
  15. chanel # 5

    FU_CK_Jesus
    Thank you sir, you are doing the human race a great service... you should go down in history as a more important figure than jesus

    how'd i guess dorothy?

    March 24, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
  16. Keep Earth Human

    Thank you Todd Steifel. I just came out as an atheist and it is not easy. Most of my family is not supportive and I have lost a lot of friends. I never talk about my beliefs but when I get the "when was the last time you went to church" I answer honestly and respectfully. But I am often rewarded with anger and threats. I will continue to expand my role in the atheist movement and it's great to see this movement gaining momentum. Don't reply if you something negative to say because I've heard enough. Thank.

    March 24, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
  17. chanel # 5

    FU_CK_Jesus
    Thank you sir, you are doing the human race a great service... you should go down in history as a more important figure than jesus

    but you like this

    March 24, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
    • Keep Earth Human

      Right on!

      March 24, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
    • chanel # 5

      chanel # 5
      FU_CK_Jesus
      Thank you sir, you are doing the human race a great service... you should go down in history as a more important figure than jesus
      but you like this

      i am convinced that his disciples indeed, encounter much more and much harsher discrimination here and abroad than you realize.

      March 24, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • chanel # 5

      i am convinced that his disciples indeed, encounter much more and much harsher discrimination here and abroad than you realize.

      it is those who love him above all else and have devoted themselves to his service 24/7, you will never see or hear a genuinely kind comment about them. ever in public media.

      March 24, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
    • chanel # 5

      those fine people are the ones who are constantly harassed and criticized and mocked and are hated and they seek nothing.

      March 24, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
    • atheist Realism

      I find it rather odd that christians have tortured so many,, yet they act as if they are the tortured.

      Just like the catholic church who calls their children victims liars and denies them,, then the church's come back is that it is they who are persecuted. Yet many victims suffer a life time with mental illness and some committed suicide. Great selfish religion.

      March 24, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
    • chanel # 5

      true.

      i, personally, have tortured millions. my cousin, barry, 10s of millions. my brother jonnie, 100s of millions. my uncle albert 1 or 2 billion.

      i wear the name christian to disarm the fools. not much longer. atheists are making sure we can't get away with torture much longer. i don't know what i'll do.

      March 24, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
  18. francisco siqueiros

    Its sad to have people like this dumb man spending money and promoting atheism. he needs to realize that the main problem in this planet is the lack of RELIGION and the lack of EDUCATION..
    Thats all we need to have a great life.. not people like this one .
    lets all catholics pray for this boy to change and stop being or behiveing like an idiot..

    March 24, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
    • atheist Realism

      religion is witchcraft,, I prefer reality and helping others. Atheist care for others without promise of eternal rewards. Makes them rather genuine.

      March 24, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
    • Saving the earth,one pithy comment at a time

      Around the world,religious people are PRAYING for you to die.You should be aware that this is true.If religious power grows,mankind will come to a bitter end...and it will not be considered rapturous.Try to understand that your fuzzy little views on the subject(which is a non-evidenced,alternate form of reality),is not shared by the MAJORITY of citizens on earth.Now..go watch some hoops !

      March 24, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
    • isolate

      Religion and education are polar opposites: the former depends on belief in something that can't be proved: the latter is concerned with confirmed or confirmable knowledge. As knowledge advances, religion retreats.

      March 24, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
  19. Face-Palm

    truth is so scary for you…

    March 24, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • 633music

      Bob, you ask a question that, no offense intended.... you should already know the answer to.
      No one should have to ask...if is obvious.

      March 24, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
  20. 633music

    Even if we think the "God's" of all the religions are absurd...how scientific is it to rule out that there may be a higher intellect somewhere?
    ANYONE who truly understands the basics of the make up of living things...as en example, knows that Evolution offers a childish explanation to how and WHY they came to be.
    Again though, not ONE of you here invented the notion of accidental life...so...you should not be offended by an alternate view.

    March 24, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
    • 633music

      Had quite the discussion on the previous page....
      Novel idea...discussion...invites contribution.

      March 24, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • Bob Carlson

      633 – You don't give up. Please state a reason or two you call Evolution "childish" and found it "full of holes". Enlighten me.

      March 24, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • Face-Palm

      never stop being honest….

      March 24, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
    • Saving the earth,one pithy comment at a time

      Evolution is the best,most accepted theory of our existence.It is far from perfect.But to call it childish while believing 2000 year old STORIES with zero evidence is the definition of childish.When faced with questions you CANNOT insert unfounded beliefs.Sorry.

      March 24, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      633
      Science hasn't ruled out that there may be a higher intellect somewhere, science shows that the ancient superstitions that are the basis of all religions are not correct. As they are not correct and there is no evidence of a higher intellect, why believe in it?
      Evolution offers a scientific explanation based upon research and investigation of common descent, distribution, DNA, etc.; if you had studied science you would not be so ignorant.
      Noone is offended by an alternate view, just an alternate view that may have been the best that primitive tribes could do but falls far short of modern knowledge.

      March 24, 2013 at 1:00 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.