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.”
Romans and Jews were excellent at writing their history, so why is it that Jesus is nowhere to be found in their history? He is only mentioned in religious books. The new testament was written by Greeks 70+ years after the presumed death of JC.
Would you like to read more facts that your priest would never dare tell you? Search for "Did Jesus really live?" written by
Marshall J. Gauvin 1922
Jesus was referenced in the writings of Josephus, who was a very well known secular Jewish historian living during the time of Jesus.
Blaire – 1 account outside of the bible vs. the entire roman historical records? hmmmm.
Josephus wasn't even born when Jesus presumably died.
Blair – Josephus only references the fact that Christians existed. His piece cannot be realisitically used as external evidence of the existence of Jesus. Personally, I think he probably existed, though the stories about him were likley embelllished over time...
Personally, I am an agnostic leaning atheist multi-millionaire, and have given away a very large chunk of my fortune to charity, including Autism, children's cancer organizations, and animal rights. I stepped aside from our family businesses in order to help and take care of my Autistic son full-time. How DARE some of you say that agnostics or atheists are mean-spirited or evil?! Look in the mirror. Perhaps some of YOU are the callous, insensitive, evil hypocrites!
You sound paranoid. What are you afraid of?
Paranoid? Come on now. What a moronic response. Part of being human is to question things, especially 'the big question'. Don't you think and use YOUR brain? Try living in REALITY once in a while. It's very comforting.
"How DARE some of you say that agnostics or atheists are mean-spirited or evil?!"
Look at your response to my question. I'm just curious why you folks feel so inferior.
God Bless this Man!
Keep up the Good Work.
I see what you did there :/
Good for him! "God" didn't PUNISH him by taking away all his money, did "he"? Silly, stupid, sheeple "believers".
There are a million better ways this fool could be spending his money. I think he just likes the attention.
@ Common Sense: Do you lack purpose and drive in your life. Do you only produce, or act out, to "get attention"? You are missing the driving point here. To work for a cause that you believe in.
Another CNN article blasting religion and admiring atheists! I once “believed” in an unbiased reporting source called “The Old CNN.com.”
People are getting smarter. Not such a bad thing. With greater intelligence comes less indoctrination....
People also have too much time on their hands and worry too much about what their neighbors believe in or what principles they hold. Everyone needs to mind their own business and let people believe in what they want!
Ryan good read................................................ you might want to
Dover Trial Transcripts............................................. FACTS.
Below are the complete transcripts from the Dover Trial. Thanks to our friends at the National Center for Science Education for helping us fill in the missing transcripts.
so it's only unbiased if they only tell your side of the story? that's all i can get from your comment,would you care to expand on your comment about how an article about an atheist is biased but one about Catholics(of which they are many right now)is not?
People are obviously NOT getting smarter. Phones and Technology maybe, but not people. This is evidenced by the majority of Americans choosing to re-elect Obama. Why can't people just believe in what they want to believe in ? This country was founded on RELIGIOUS FREEDOM !
I know, I know! You atheists are smarter than everyone else and understand the true meaning of life. You all went to your Ivy League schools and work at your non-profits and this makes you intellectually superior then me. I just went to a state school and watch sports so I must not “know” or truly “understand” anything.
@common, do you mean like trying to force the teaching of creationism in public schools ?
@ Coomon Sense: You must have heard that one Sunday issue of the New York Times contains more printed and graphic information than an 18th century citizen of England would have encountered in his entire life. You say people are not getting smarter, but phones are. You are sadly mistaken. No, people are not repositories of all the information that they come across now, because it is too much information. But our world has made it possible for us to know where to find accurate information, and find it very quickly. If you are of a certain age, you might remember the "card catalogue systems" in your local library. That was information on a cryptic scale. I am glad those days are over. And I am glad that religious indoctrination of children is on its way out. If our country was founded on "religious freedom" as you say, the children would not be subjected to such abject brainwashing at such an early age. It would be illegal to force a child into "Sunday school".
This is a perfect example of the "look at me" syndrome. Nobody knows the outcome of next years Super Bowl any better than they really know if God exists (He does). But they get to be on TV and interviewed by all these reporters and that's what turns them on. Of course you could argue there is no God, that's the whole idea isn't it. But in my life personally, I truly believe there is divine intervention......
Funny how you say that no one can "know" anything for sure. Except of course God can know. And you know God knows...
Oh, but you are sure – "He does".
Ah, nobody knows if God exists but you do, you are so special as most believers in one faith or another feel the same way or would not have faith. Haven't seen Stiefel on Sunday morning TV yet; I guess he can't bump out the evangies.
There is a better example of "look at me". Google "pope" and check out his outfits, hats, and jewelry. He makes Lady GaGa look like a Girl Scout.
Man I wish my workplace treated me like God's followers treat him. I'd get credit for everything that went right, but any time something went wrong, I would get no blame whatsoever! If some of my co-workers started telling others that this was unfair, my co-workers would respond, "Oh come on, you're just trying to rile up people and start trouble. Go back to your cubicle and stop insulting the perfect worker Alex R.!" Easiest job ever!
Being par of an atheist group is almost eh same as being part of a religious group...
Believe in whatever you want, as long as it is nt organize or part of a group.
Why do religious people get to group up and fight for their interests, but when an atheist group gets together to fight for THEIR rights, everyone gets all offended? Atheists are one of the last groups it is still socially acceptable to discriminate against, such as over 50% of Americans saying they would never vote for an atheist. Why shouldn't atheist groups form to fight this injustice?
Alex R: Don't forget smokers. If you are an atheist and a smoker, it's perfectly acceptable to take you out and shoot you.
Religion is what it is...call it weak, dumb, stupid...whatever. But I can tell you that religion is what killed Jesus. Religion is not what I have...just faith and belief that He is Lord. I don't go to "Church"...except in my house, or the house of other believers. Jesus brought in the new law...and that simply says believe in that He was, and is, Who He Says He is...and you will be saved. Simple faith....like a little child...is all He asks. What a beautiful gift.
Faith: Believing something without evidence.
What we call the Ignorant.
There are many theories that lacked evidence for many years, that later turned out to be true. Are you willing to bet your eternal soul that there is NOT a God ? I would call that bet ignorant.
@ Common Sense: If your God values your having placed a right bet on him, he is no better than the horse races, which is a rather banal human pursuit attracting people who have nothing better to do with their lives than spend it hoping for a jackpot.
His money is not being wasted. It's his money and he can spend it as he likes. Mitt Romney gives an incredible amount of money to his kooky church. This man gives part of his fortune to his beliefs. Lots of Americans do the same thing.
pride comes before the fall
Ridiculous! Pride is part of being human. As long as it is well placed.
Does your screen name really mean rouge, as in the French word for 'red'? Or were you trying for Sarah Palin's use of the word "Rogue"?
actually, it's "pride goeth before a fall"....don't misquote the alleged inspired word of God. Even an agnostic like me has read it.
Atheism? It's like believing you exist all by itself, without intelligent guided life. Problem is, life IS intelligently created. Without intelligent planning you wouldn't have this universe and everything in it, run smoothly as is.
Actually, science and common sense can explain the formation of planets and life.
So you believe. Obviously, other people disagree. If it could be proven so easily, there would be no dissension.
"Running smoothly", you say. How about just running? Constipation, volcanic eruptions, acne, asteroid attacks, mass murders, earthquakes, hang nails, dead batteries, slip-n-falls, Siamese twins, computer glitches, Interstate pile-ups, floods, bank fraud, false promises, hair lips....oh, I could go on. Sure it's a beautiful world, and I always accentuate the positive in my own life. But to walk around pretending that you are in some divine plan of "running smoothly" means you are closing your eyes to the wonder of things just evolving for their own benefit, and you hanging on for dear life. Not scary, not scary at all. Actually, pretty dang incredible. Why strange things up by inventing a Know-It-All leader who has your good fortune at Heart, except when something bad happens to you. Then it's His Plan, and it's all mysterious. Why does that make sense to you?
Atheism is the rejection of unsupported assertion of deities. Atheist don't believe something for no reason with no evidence to justify it. That's nothing more than gullibility.
There is no such thing as an intelligently created universe. It doesn't "run smoothly". People who say such things have no idea how the universe work. The universe is incredibly destructive, wasteful. Nothing intelligent about that. Life certainly isn't intelligently guided. Intelligent design imply simplicity. Life is highly complex. Nearly 99% of all living organisms that ever lived on earth have gone extinct. How is that intelligent? Natural birth defects aren't intelligent. Our own galaxy will collide directly with Andromeda. What, then, was the purpose for the existence of our galaxy in the first place? Where is the intelligence in that? The universe is on a one way road to certain death as the expansion continue to accelerate and drive stars and galaxies further apart ensuring eventual death of all life in the universe. What then is the point of life in a Universe destine to destroy life? Its nonsensical. Simply people who like to make noise. Please. Spare us the idiocy.
Define science? Science is a subject not Creator, we didn't happen by our own will. Science is dead, nature is dead by itself ..it doesn't know for need to create intelligent life
Only a fool would say universe isn't running intelligently. Does our body know on it's own to be body and that swe need eyes to see teeth to eat, everything is in perfect order. What Knew? nothing? HOW?
I invite any and all Christians to state your case, opinions or scriptures. It is you Christians that will do all the work needed to expose your religion for what it really is, and that is....Nothing. It's fiction. It's you selling a belief in the hopes that more people will join your cause and donate money and submit so that you will feel more powerful.
Sorry but I got news for you, people are getting smarter. Intelligence will lead ALL people to ultimate salvation not your fairy tale fiction bull****.
I wish their was some sort of movement where people just kept their opinions to themselves.. Atheists will forever be immortalized with the likes of Christianity and Islam...not because of it's foundation or opinions on God...but because they wanna go shoving their personal life choices down everyone's throat. I don't believe in a God but I'd be embarrassed to call myself an Atheist. If you don't believe in dragons... then why commit your life to their demise?
This guy is the man
Sad little tramp took it up the wazoo from an old priest and not devotes his life to hating God for it. I'll pray for him.
@ Angeson: "Sad little tramp took it up the wazoo from an old priest and not devotes his life to hating God for it. I'll pray for him."... What a frightening individual you are. Your prayers sound like Linda Blair's demonized soliloquies in The Exorcist. Take a good long look in the mirror while you pray. Your impulses are dangerous to humanity.
I can't make up my mind. I love the ethic and spirituality of the Gospels and some other parts of the New Testament and Old Testament but can't accept the entire Bible. I've studied Buddhism, Zen, Hinduism, Islam and Taoism. They all have great ethic and moral compass information that is compatible with something a Humanist might think. I sway between Christianity, Theism and agnosticism almost daily. It's a pit that every one of us are sitting in whether we have the guts to acknowledge it or not. We jump up, trying to catch hold of some of the grass rooted around the pit and pull ourselves out but it always gives way and we fall back in. this is true of all of us whether you are an atheist, agnostic, theist or deist. There's only one real way out and that involves a helping hand – see, I'm swaying toward deism again.
Consider letting facts be your guide.
Listen to Russ. Live your life with an open mind and accept no religion period. Try them all out, as I have done and maybe (hopefully) your mind will allow you to find TRUTH.
Nicely put. If all people of any Dogma were to be honest, they would admit there is doubt. At lease you have done your homework. I feel everyone has the right to reject Theism, provided they know even a little bit about what they are rejecting. It's so much easier to 'hear' from a person like you who has at least done a bit of a Walkabout.
Dear Mr. Stiefel,
These "to the gut" potential Facebook/Twitter postings should save you a lot of money:
Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!
• As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.
• As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.
• There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.
• There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.
The Apostles'/Agnostics’ Creed 2013: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)
Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??
I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)
Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,
He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.
(references used are available upon request)
• There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.
• Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.
• Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.
Added details available upon written request.
A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.
"The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.
Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother's womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. "
For your next billboards:
SAVING 1.5 BILLION LOST MUSLIMS:
THERE NEVER WERE AND NEVER WILL BE ANY ANGELS I.E. NO GABRIEL, NO ISLAM AND THEREFORE NO MORE KORANIC-DRIVEN ACTS OF HORROR AND TERROR LIKE 9/11.
SAVING 2 BILLION LOST CHRISTIANS:
THERE WERE NEVER ANY BODILY RESURRECTIONS AND THERE WILL NEVER BE ANY BODILY RESURRECTIONS I.E. NO EASTER, NO CHRISTIANITY.
SAVING 15.5 MILLION FOLLOWERS OF JUDAISM:
ABRAHAM AND MOSES AS BEST ONE CAN TELL NEVER EXISTED.
Added details upon request.
I wholeheartedly applaud Todd Stiefel for having the intelligence, curiosity, humbleness, and introspection to QUESTION the ultimate, age-old question facing humanity, instead of just being a 'sheeple'. Personally, I am an agnostic, as I don't believe one can prove (or disprove) the past or present existence of a supreme deity, a.k.a. 'God'. But certainly, and logically, one can assume that it was mortal men that conceived of, and wrote ALL religious books, tomes, and manuscripts throughout history. I have a lot more respect for those that may believe in a 'God' DIRECTLY, without the nonsense and taint of man.
he got drunk and stupid at college, a common failing. higher education often educates common sense from those not able to comprehend what knowledge is really about.
This guy is no different than all the true believers who try to convince you to join their church. He is small, foolish and can't accespt that another person can have a different opinion. If someone wants to believe in god that is there business. If doing so makes them happy, a better person and they are not hurting anyone than leave them alone. With a little luck he will blow his fortune and have to go and spend his time making a living.
Did you read the article in full? He said there is good and bad in religion at the end of the article. He is looking to end prejudice toward atheism is all.
What you might want to consider is the endless brainwashing of children by parents and community leaders whose right "to believe whatever they want" necessarily extends to and taints the minds of those youngsters in their charge. If everybody had a right to their own opinion, as you seem to indicate, the children would be free throughout childhood and adolescence to explore and absorb and repudiate all ideas that come their way, eventually arriving at their own opinion. Threatening the children with hellfire and damnation surely does not recognize their right to form an "informed" opinion. What say you?
There is a difference: he doesn't promise you eternal life if you believe him or threaten you with eternal torture if you don't.
Absolutely, if someone want to believe in God, great. Problem is they want to impose there view on me (e.g., contraception, abortion, marriage equality, WARS, WARS, WARS). If only they actually lived what they preach – "Thou shalt now kill (usually, see footnote below*)"
*Unless the person you want to kill has a lot of oil, and insulted your father, would be nice if he spoke a different language, Oh, and you'll need to make up a story, like maybe weapons of mass destruction, then it is OK"
Really? GW prayed about whether to bomb Iraq and the Prince of Peace, said "Yeah, bomb the **** out of them"? Really???
Religion is a mass delusion. It is exploited by the clever few to take advantage of the not too bright.
You can be a good person without this nonsense. We need people like Todd Stiefel to create alternate ways of thinking, such
as fantasy vs. reality. Plain and simple, religion is a lie used to control people.
Exactly. Look on the bright side stevie. You and I are not wasting time and money on this societal scam , and it is a scam. Funny how religious beliefs are based on where one is born. Can you say incotrination?
"... It is exploited by the clever few to take advantage of the not too bright." That is the entire case in a nutshell. Thank you for this clear and concise definition!
Amen to that
I attended a baptist service with a girlfriend years ago. It was very apparent that "the preacher" was simply the smartest of the stupid in the room. Pass the collection plate! Needless to say, we didn't date for long.......
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.