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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. EDWARD

    Go to Google, punch in Robert Ingersol, and do a little reading.

    March 24, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
  2. Mitch Miller Guentry

    Ok, what if I also wear silk trousers ? Kewl ?

    March 24, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
    • Stich smiller daughtry

      Do you also support nudist colonies?

      March 24, 2013 at 8:07 pm |
  3. Mitch Miller Guentry

    Ok, what if I am a vegetarian, wear black framed glasses, am gay, wear PETA shirts, play acoustic music,don't believe in God, eat only organic veggies.......AND I add bowling shoes to my wardrobe.....will I be the kewlest ?

    March 24, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
    • Stich smiller daughtry

      Do you also drive a Toyota Prius? Do you also cuss a lot? do you also support abortion? In other words, do you support mammal rights?

      March 24, 2013 at 8:06 pm |
  4. Roberto

    How sad Todd. Hope you don't "wake up" too late!

    March 24, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
  5. Christards Gone Wild!

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I0-04VDrCbM&w=640&h=390]

    March 24, 2013 at 7:58 pm |
  6. Mitch Miller Guentry

    If I shop at Whole Foods and pay $16 for an organic orange AND I become gay, will that raise my kewl status even more ?

    March 24, 2013 at 7:57 pm |
    • Mitch Miller Guentry

      I already do that and I am.

      March 24, 2013 at 7:59 pm |

    • Not interesting.

      March 24, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
  7. Mitch Miller Guentry

    black framed glasses....check
    Kafka book in hand.....check
    PETA t shirt .....check
    regurgitated rhetoric to spout about God not being real.....check
    ................oh yeah, I'm one kewl dude!!!!!!!

    March 24, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
    • Gaydar

      is on fire

      March 24, 2013 at 7:58 pm |
    • Doc

      Thinking abilities disabled.............check
      Lobotomy performed, just in case any reasoning faculties are still active.......check
      'GOD H8S F.AGS' T-shirt.................check
      Armed with 2000 year old arguments for invisible old men in the sky that have been refuted on countless occasions.......check

      ................oh yeah, I'm one kewl religie!!!!!!!

      March 24, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
  8. Len F.

    One of the more interesting contrasts I see sociologically between atheists and Christians, say, in America, is that of their respective capacity to self-organize.
    Granted that we could almost say that 'Christianity' doesn't even exist to the degree that there are such numerous competing and contradictory denominations, Christians by and large on at least some level see their job description as involving the spreading of the Gospel and leading people to Christ.
    And this takes organization.
    They've also had some 2,000 years of practice organizing and making converts, and they tend to gather every Sunday to be reminded of their mission statement.
    It will be interesting, therefore, to see how Todd Stiefel will inject the requisite marching orders into the atheism movement necessary to organize itself in likewise fashion to Christianity.

    March 24, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
    • JC

      The rules have changed. We now have the internet.

      March 24, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Sociologically speaking, atheism isn't a group, it's a definition of not believing in theism. Lack of belief is not an organization. A-theists don't "follow", that's the difference. There will be no "marching orders". All he is doing is letting people know it's ok to let go of the indoctrination, you're not alone. Atheism doesn't take over, religions simply fade away.

      March 24, 2013 at 8:00 pm |
  9. rexdogcanadien

    What proof do we have that there is a God who created the world and all there is in it? This idea of a God who is all seeing, all knowing and all powerful cannot be categorically proven nor can be categorically denied. Therefore, God is irrelevant in our lives. There is but one certainty: All living things were born to die.

    March 24, 2013 at 7:51 pm |
  10. Mitch Miller Guentry

    I look like so kewl and super smart. I read Kafka and eat spinach wraps while i tell everyone that God isn't real.

    March 24, 2013 at 7:49 pm |
    • The Tin Foil Hat Brigade Is Here

      You'd be even cooler if you were gay as well.

      March 24, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
    • ..and for the good news;there is no Satan either !

      If I didn't know better,I would swear you are being sarcastic.Not funny-just sarcastic...and that is probably because you have no strong argument to counter the atheists on this thread.But that's OK,neither do any of your other religious pals..

      March 24, 2013 at 8:02 pm |
    • The Vocal Atheist

      I suspect you smoke spinach wraps.

      March 24, 2013 at 8:30 pm |
  11. russ

    Belief in no god is just as illogical as belief in God.

    March 24, 2013 at 7:48 pm |
    • Answer

      Evidence for god?

      Can you explain why you believe?

      March 24, 2013 at 7:51 pm |
    • The Tin Foil Hat Brigade Is Here

      Finger snaps.

      March 24, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      What? .. "Belief" in no God? That sentence makes no sense. Belief in a God(s) is the opposite of NO belief in God(s).
      Here's a proper sentence. "I do not believe in unicorns". NOT "I believe in no unicorns".

      March 24, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
    • Gyrogearloose

      Yup. That's why, for the most part, I don't waste my time worshiping or trying to convince others not to worship.

      March 24, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Russ, Can you explain why you don't believe in Odin, Zeus, Kokopelli, Akua, etc. What evidence do you have that they don't exist?

      March 24, 2013 at 7:57 pm |
    • Lilith

      Russ, they are not equal. There are infinite things that have no proof or evidence, that does not make them equal, it makes them infinitely improbable. For example it is more probable that an invisible Stegosaurus is orbiting Pluto right now than there are Gods. Why? Because both Stegs and Pluto are known to be/have been real, Gods are not, but yet it is extremely improbable that a Steg is orbiting Pluto right now.

      March 24, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
  12. Mitch Miller Guentry

    Like, bashing God and supporting gay rights is like the kewl thing to do and stuff. It like totally puts you in the in crowd.

    March 24, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
    • Mitch Miller Guentry

      Oooh look at me everybody. My boyfriend left me. He was an atheist. So now I attack atheists.

      March 24, 2013 at 7:50 pm |
    • == o ==

      Poe

      March 24, 2013 at 7:51 pm |
    • DavidTX

      Everyone knows what you are Mitch, and you are doing none of the rest of us any good being exactly what the atheists point at us and say. Not all of us are hateful instigators pretending for Christ.

      March 24, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
    • Rapsy

      I'm frankly surprised you're not angry at your magical sky daddy for denying you the ability to articulate a point of view other than blaming everyone for being gay.

      Maybe you should communicate to him telepathically and ask him to bestow you with more intelligence. When he does, we'll be right here waiting.

      March 24, 2013 at 8:00 pm |
  13. Ed

    You Xtians are hillarious. You are SO offended by millions spent to promote secular values, while BILLIONS are given to promote religion every year. If xtians didn't constantly try and chip away at the wall between church and state, there would be no need for the man above to do what he does.

    March 24, 2013 at 7:46 pm |
    • Rapsy

      It's so sad when all they have left is to make up their own "science", such as the world only being 6000 years old, and people lived in harmony with dinosaurs. Elect a few of these idiots I to office and then you get to watch them try to sneak creationism into schools.

      But point out scientific theories to them that contradict their belief that animals didn't just magically appear out of thin air fully formed, and their heads explode.

      March 24, 2013 at 8:07 pm |
  14. Nic

    that's a lot of money wasted. goodness how many children could he have saved with these millions!! anybody who was raised having to believe in the old testament would certainly become disgusted and turn atheist. i wish his priest would have told him about the new testament, and not the old. too late!!!

    March 24, 2013 at 7:46 pm |
    • Bostontola

      Don't you love it when other people tell you how to spend your own money.

      March 24, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
    • Ed

      How many children could be saved with the BILLIONS wasted on the construction of massive buildings, and the utility costs of mainting these buildings that sit largely empty 6 days a week.

      March 24, 2013 at 7:58 pm |
    • lagun_greg

      Well Nic, it's really a pity that you have to defend What Yeshua Said to everybody. If it hadn't been that absolutely everybody else in the religion, and especially Paul, weren't hypocrites and liars, you wouldn't have to do that now. but tht act is that Christians have betrayed Christianity, not the world at large. Reading the NT at young age only makes you want top run away from the church, not join it.

      March 24, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
    • ..and for the good news;there is no Satan either !

      Jesus believed with all his heart-every word in the old testament.Ya,check it out.Was he/it mistaken in his/it's beliefs?..I hesitate giving Jesus a human gender definition.If he was god's son,he was not human,therefore can not be defined as a human male..just sayin'

      March 24, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
  15. Mitch Miller Guentry

    IMe and my friends are so super kewl. We frequent underground coffee shops and listen to acoustic music while we bash God. We make our own shoes and wear black framed glasses. We're just so kewl and hip. My best bud Matt and I are headed out to grab some micro brews and tell everyone how we don't believe in god cause we're kewl and are at the top of the food chain of kewlness. Did I mention we're vegetarians ? Yep, that adds to the kewlness.

    March 24, 2013 at 7:44 pm |
    • Bostontola

      Please tel me you're trolling or you're under 12 years old (or both).

      March 24, 2013 at 7:46 pm |
    • Mitch Miller Guentry

      Oooh look at me everybody. My boyfriend left me. He was an atheist. So now I attack atheists.

      March 24, 2013 at 7:46 pm |
    • Rapsy

      It's always hilarious in a " where laughing at you, not with you" kinda way when a person who believes in the power of magical thoughts and sky-fairies attempt to mock others.

      What's even funnier is just how hard you're trying. *pats you on the head*. Consider yourself acknowledged. Now run away little religitard and hide yourself away from reality in your magical book of stories, mmmkay.

      March 24, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
    • == o ==

      Dumb-ass Poe.

      March 24, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
    • ..and for the good news;there is no Satan either !

      You know what kewl guy,I wouldn't mind meeting up with you and your Kewl friends,if you're open to listening to the word of Jesus.Us christians is kewl and understandin'..Ps;I never say NO to a good vegi-burger either...xxooxx..

      March 24, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
  16. Bostontola

    Religious people discriminate against people of some other religions.

    March 24, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
    • lagun_greg

      you mean every other religion.

      March 24, 2013 at 8:00 pm |
  17. Heythere

    suppose to say when it gets dangerous**

    March 24, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
  18. Heythere

    I don't believe in god, but i'm not an Atheist. Just because someone has a similar view to something doesn't automatically put them into that category. whats funny to me is i don't know anyone 5 thousand years old to back up theist and i don't recall knowing anyone over billions of years old to back up atheists, yet both sides know there right. once i meet that person i let you all know what happened in the beginning. last thing to add lack of religion has allowed me to open my eyes and take look at many different types of beliefs throughout the world. i feel that religion closes you off to one point of view not allowing more knowledge in. we can all be civil and learn from eachother even if we have contradicting ideas, it's when someone is so set in there ways not allowing new information in is when i get dangerous

    March 24, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
    • Heythere

      suppose to say at the end when it gets dangerous*

      March 24, 2013 at 7:42 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      The difference being that the science is generally repeatable or observable through experimentation. Evolution has been proven because of common descent, distribution, DNA, modern farming, and more; you don't have to have lived for millenia to observe it, we can observe it now.

      March 24, 2013 at 7:49 pm |
    • John P. Tarver, MS/PE

      You are a very religios man santa, but in fact evolution as a means to species was proven false by the global geological record 40 years ago. Just as the big bang was invalidated by relativity a century ago. A theory under the scientific method must be demonstrable and repeatable, but Darwin invented his own scientific method of his idea being "falsable"; a standad met 40 years ago.

      March 24, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
    • clarity

      Come on, Tarver – you've been spouting nonsense all day – grow a pair for once and provide some evidence for all this BS. Anyone can make a headline here and you just seem to be a prolific spewer, but with no guts to back stuff up.

      March 24, 2013 at 8:02 pm |
    • clarity

      Well I guess now we know what Rumplestiltskin Tarver is upset about (see previous page). He's griping about science being taught that's supposedly out of date and he is way out of date on evolution theory. The nerve. But that is so typical. He'll disappear for a while and then return spewing his vast wealth of """"knowledge"""" like he is some wind-up doll from the bargain bin.

      March 24, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
    • John P. Tarver, MS/PE

      Clarity- I recommend Dr. Gould's 1400 page attempt to reconsile evolutionary theory with the hard physical evidence of geology. As far as modern biology is concerned "origin of specie" is an ant study; devoid of other scientific content.

      March 24, 2013 at 8:24 pm |
    • clarity

      JPT I suggest you leave Gould the man who's been dead for quite a while and get up to date. These responses already give to you below should highlight that you are the one who is out of date and out of touch with realilty:

      ==============================

      Science was meant to change over time as new technologies and evidence becomes available. This is why scientists call their conclusions 'theories' instead of 'facts'. A theory is only valid as long as it has not been disproven. Contrary to what you seem to believe about scientists, they do not hold onto theories that have been disproven through scientific method.

      This highlights the difference between science and religion. While new theories are developed and disproven theories are discarded, science progresses and becomes more and more accurate. Religious teachings, on the other hand, are regarded as fact, not theory, as they supposedly come from a higher power. These teachings are not discarded as they are disproven and therefore religion stagnates and does not progress.

      If you want religious teachings to be taught in school instead of science, merely enroll your child in a school that teaches the religious ideas you adhere to. It is as easy as that. Leave science to those who value reason over dogma and leave religion to those who want to keep believing what they were taught to believe regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

      ============================

      Tarver, species don't evolve at a uniform rate. You should think of evolution as landscape with selection pressures as mountain peaks. The mountain peaks are scattered and isolated. Genetic information is moving along the landscape. Most of the time nothing much happens – stability and gradualism. A peak is encountered and the genetic information is significantly transformed by going over it – speciation or extinction.

      March 24, 2013 at 8:36 pm |
  19. Mitch Miller Guentry

    Please look at me. I need attention.

    March 24, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
  20. Ron from New Jersey

    Unfortunately Todd's story falls short of the truth. The New Testament class wasn't the big picture in his call to atheism was it Todd? You had another very deep need to pin our failures on God didn't you?

    March 24, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
    • Eric

      You don't beg questions, do you, Ron?

      March 24, 2013 at 7:44 pm |
    • Ted

      Eric: Kaching. Awesome.

      Ouch. Ron, you'll be able to sit down soon; the redness will go away.

      March 24, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
    • laguna_greg

      Oh Ron, who are we supposed to pin the Christian god's failures on, then? Each other?

      March 24, 2013 at 8:01 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.