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.”
Happy Easter , Lord is Risen!
Sir, I plead with you to listen to me. God is real. Man sinned. God sent His Son to die on a Cross for the propitiation of those sins. Jesus rose from the grave after 3 days. He is alive now and makes intercession on behalf of those that have asked Him into their hearts in a personal way. This is the only way to heaven. If there was another way then Jesus would have died in vain. God says in scripture that even nature speaks to His existence, so that "no one is without excuse" (for believing). You, like many others in the Catholic movement were raised on "pomp and outward religion", and I fear never really experienced the true saving grace of Jesus Christ. When one asks Jesus into their heart, spiritual blinders are removed and one begins to see the reality of the existence of God in a personal and tangible way. Having said all of that, the Bible itself even speaks that not all will believe in Him, so I do not find it odd that you, at this present time, are on of those who don't believe. Lastly, I will remind you that you are without excuse. 2 Peter 3:9 says this, and I quote, "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." God loves you.
Does it ever occur to you that everything you are saying is simply mythology ?
You my friend are delusional.
We all know the myth. We also all know you have no evidence to support anything you just said.
Sorry pal I do not want to believe in a bigot for a God with his chosen people and leaving out two thirds of the people on earth while having all his followers kiss his holy butt to get his benevolence. Why pray/prey tell would he allow his "Vicars of Christ on Earth and other clergy types" be such cheap hustlers getting wealthy off of the bounty of the sheep. Enjoy your delusion, you are free to do so.
I see the brainwashing came early and stayed late.
Whether one believes in God or not, what an incredible waste to spend vast sums of money on this particular cause. This is an obvious example of another narcissist engaged in "Hey look at me!" behavior.
I see. Religion has no one like that. Right.
Driven by any megachurches lately? Or noticed how much evangelical nutjobs spend trying to force science out of the classroom and replace it with narrow christian theology courses? Stiefel's expenditures are a drop in a huge bucket in comparison. And those a holes trying to subvert public education need to be countered; they are a foundational danger to the Republic.
As opposed to the hundreds of millions poured into religious advertising yearly?
Atheists and Agnostics,
it is not a myth,
there is a GOD,
here is the Ultimate Proof:
UNIVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES!
And which "God" specifically did that? Was it "your God" of course?
There is nothing that has been more destructive to humanity than religious doctrine, and belief in the same.
Really? You have empirical evidence that this statement you have just proclaimed is a fact? I'd really love to see that evidence. I'm not arguing for or against what you've written, I'm challenging the boldness of saying religion has caused the most damage. If you study ancient and even recent history you will find this is certainly not the case. It's popular and hip to write what you've written above but it's just a trend that has "production money" behind it. It's trendy like The Beatles, Punk, Disco, etc were. There is a marketing angle. Believe what you like but don't go around make bold proclamations if you don't have empirical data to back it up.
Careful Christians will wage war on you for talking smack on Jesus!
I believe in God. And I believe that American Christians are about as far removed from him as one edge of the universe is from the other.
If it takes the threat of burning in an imaginary land and a book that tells people to love their neighbor to keep people from being complete a – holes, then I'm willing to tolerate Christians trying to shove their religion down my throat. I don't need religion to be a good person, many people do.
If it only worked that way. Instead what we see are religious moon-bats using cherry-picked bible verses as justification for hatred and bigotry. Visit yahoo any day of the week for multiple examples. Today they were particularly full of hate just coming from palm sunday mass and all.
Pretty sad that this man lives his life hating God, who does exist, and will judge this man. He will face the one he does not believe in and be separated from the one who loves him forever. I feel sorry for him.
one cannot hate what one does not believe in. I do not hate santa.
Why a movement then? Atheism is a religion trying to disprove God.
"Pretty sad that this man lives his life hating God" He never said he hated God... He said he does not believe
"who does exist" Proof? For those who are not educated your answer will be "faith" "explain all this" we would but you still wouldn't get it
"and will judge this man" Not to concerned with that.... say your right....your "just" God will understand
"He will face the one he does not believe in and be separated from the one who loves him forever" Please tell me how we can make this happen on Earth? I don't want to have to wait to die to be separated from you.
"I feel sorry for him" Please don't. He is not worrying about you
Well, this is the "Era of the Fringe." Instead of being outcast and marginalized as they should be, they are now elements to the Great American Freak Show. Amazing what bitter little children with a chip on their shoulders can do with Daddy's money.
You're talking about Christians, right?
Yeah I agree. Exactly why have those moonbat christian believers in fairy tales not been marginalized yet.? Don't worry. They will be.
Lord have Mercy!
Well, Religion is personal choice, so everybody should respect that.It is up to you , to believe or not believe.
To insult either side is wrong.I do believe in Christ my Lord, My savior , and I also have friends who do not believe , but we respect each other. There are those who are doing wrong on both sides(remember people are imperfect) , and they should be condemned.Silent majority are good people , they suffer the most..Just love each other, like Christ Loves You.
Well put. I agree.
I wonder if atheists pray in the final moments before death. Not like their terminally ill or anything or praying not to die but starting to figure out that "wow, I'm in shock and don't want my conscience wandering off in a dark state (not hell) for the next zillion years, trap inside my lifeless body".
I wonder if their pride will stop them from prayer of forgiveness which will be too late by then. I doubt it.
Are you trying to say, "there are no atheists in foxholes?"
The beauty of Atheist and death is there is NO FEAR at that time. We understand that we are going to the same state as before we were born. I did not fear before I was born, you have your conscious to worry about.
Why do we need an atheist movement? Nobody has said he can't be a atheist. It is his/anybodies choice. Mr. Stiefel needs to get down off of his "soap box" and spend some of his time and money doing something worth while. Maybe he should volunteer at a soup kitchen. Of course, volunteering at a soup kitchen doesn't give Mr. Stiefel much publicity which he seems to enjoy.
Based on a number of posted comments, there is a large population that have a misconception of what an Atheist is. An organization that educates people, clearing up misconceptions and encouraging a dialogue with others that believe differently is a bad thing?
Let me post this excerpt from the article...you must have skipped over it:
"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.”
Atheist Latin A (against) Theis(m). Against any Theory of God. Not that confusing. He is welcome to that. I didn't know Atheists are now Evangelical. He is welcome to his non-belief, but if he's calling himself a Humanist, there are too many humans in need of help. Pulling people from their "closet" does nothing to help the suffering of innocents. Waste of money.
Get over it, people! There ain't no Santa Claus, no Easter Bunny, no Tooth Fairy, no god. Grow up!
To relate the Easter bunny and Santa Clause to God is pretty sad. You will meet God one day Robert whether you belive in him or not. I feel sorry for you.
SnowDog– Please do not feel sorry for him. He is at peace now with life, without fear. It is actually pretty liberating. And when he sees someone in need... guess what he does? Help them.... Crazy isn't it? While you are praying for someone, he is actually helping!
People are People
Thanks for watching.
Do people know the difference between Agnostic (Latin – To not Know) and Atheist (Latin – To reject all theories of God)? I can fully understand Agnostics. It's hard to believe in something you feel you've never seen. Have Atheists done their homework, though? Checked out the 7 major world religions and the hundreds of others? Not likely.
But be an Atheist. Be my guest. Why do the rest of us need to join your Club? That sentiment goes for all organized philosophy. If we want to know, we'll call you. Leave it all out of public policy. Why try to eff with a belief system in which someone finds comfort?
Here'a a thought: Worship the Sun. Atheists feel they owe nothing to the Universe. If you cannot find a belief system that fits you, thats fine. I get it. Do you owe nothing o the Sun? It gives you light, heat, food, and you'd perish without it. Are you THAT ungrateful you owe nothing to any part of the Universe? Silly.
I truly hope when you find yourself facing tragedy alone, or watched any loved one in peril that this great Void you want us all to accept will give you comfort.
Do Atheist believe in helping the less fortunate? Or are they FEBUS (F Everybody But Us)? Take your billboard money and sponsor family with a terminally ill child that can no longer afford treatment. If you are a Humanist, the take the money and help other humans instead of wasting it trying to pull people out of their "closet." Take care of your own closet. I'll take care of mine.Should we meet, what shall I say when you sneeze? God Bless you, whether you want it or not.
Christians worship a god they believe sends people to hell for eternal torture if they don't believe in him. I find that disturbing.
I find that doing something for others out the goodness of one's heart and the love of fellow man to have more impact than doing something nice for others so the 'eye in the sky' will approve. I don't think you fully understand what being an atheist means.
God does not send people to hell. You send yourself to hell. God will give you what you want. If you do not want anythng to do with him in this life he will have nothing to do with you in the afterlife. He will grant you what you want. It does not mean he does not love you. He is rightous and cannot let sin into heaven. That is why he sent Jesus.
@snowdog, what a load of bull. Your god created hell and your god sends people to hell, or so you believe.
2 Thessalonians, 8-9:"In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power."
Translation, believe in me or else. And you lick the boots of this imaginary god.
Dear One One, I am not asking anyone to be a Christian. I do understand Atheism. I do not like to see either group evangelize. I do not think anyone should waste their time pulling people from any or either closet. When people want something, they'll ask for it. It's obnoxious and ignorant of this man to waste money on taking away something many find comfort in, just as obnoxious as it is to attempt to push a particular theory of God on anyone who is not asking to be redirected.
ALTTS– Look around... all you read is Religious folks saying they feel sorry for Atheist. I have not read one Atheist saying that they should STOP believing in what they believe and join Atheist thought.
Ignorance Overload... If his stated goal is pulling people from the "closet" of faith, that would be asking others to abandon a mythology which gives them comfort. I say Keep the faith...to Yourself.
"4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. [a] 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
10 When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, 11 houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, 12 be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
13 Fear the LORD your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name. 14 Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you; 15 for the LORD your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land. 16 Do not put the LORD your God to the test as you did at Massah. 17 Be sure to keep the commands of the LORD your God and the stipulations and decrees he has given you." Deuteronomy 6:4-17 NIV
Dude, now, I mean this with ALL DUE RESPECT, but quoting the Bible to prove the validity of your faith is NOT proof. It's like saying "This is true because it says it's true." It's called a self-referential argument.
I DO respect your faith. I have my OWN faith and ask the same.
Just another "belief" fanatic.
Every knee will bow and every tounge confess that Jesus is Lord, even this guy.
If I die and find myself in front of a god, I will judge him/her. Not the other way around, thank you.
Words written by a man many years ago... think of all the craziness in the world today! Imagine the psych of the person that wrote that.... yet you cling to it so many years late.... that's scary stuff!
And what redeeming "make the world a better place" purpose does he ultimately wish to achieve? Believe what ever you want to believe and then do something useful with your life. Go visit a Pediatric cancer ward.
Exactly.Well said. Visit a Cancer ward. even better, pay for the treatments when insurance runs out. cover the cost of the Funeral. While you're there make a little speech to the family about the great Nothingness of it all. I'm sure he can pull them out of the closet right then and there.
STupid, Becuase there is sickness and evil in the world there is no God. Stupid and ignorant statement. The diseases in this world are caused by man, not God. God created a perfect world that we screwed up. Satan is real as well who is the author of evil, not God.
The irony of your reply speaks volumes!
SnowDog– every time I read something your write I want to just give you a hug. I really think you might have PTSD from your Religious upbringing. The amount of fear you have is not healthy!
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.