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
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(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. The_Lightbringr

    Having faith in something can be a good thing. However, it's when faithful people band together and form organized religion that the proverbial all hell breaks loose

    March 24, 2013 at 8:57 am |
    • Jim

      I would argue that faith is not that good of a thing. It requires belief without proof. Where else in our lives do we submit to that? The very act of accepting without proof makes us all weaker and susceptible to fraud.

      March 24, 2013 at 9:08 am |
  2. Western Gal

    If this guy weren't so darn wealthy–where would he be? And who would care? Money should be his God...How he wants to shape this non-belief into a movement is absurd. Reminds me of the old story by Flannery O'Connor: WISE BLOOD. Written over 50 years ago.. ."Hazel Motes" and his Church without God.

    Proves there really is "nothing new under the sun"–oh wait, that's from the Bible, isn't it?

    March 24, 2013 at 8:57 am |
  3. Skeptimist

    Meanwhile, the majority of us get along quite nicely by simply minding our own business.

    March 24, 2013 at 8:54 am |
    • Fungeek

      The problem with this passive live-and-let-live approach is that it relies upon courtesy and etiquette on a personal level between individual people. Meanwhile, due to nothing more than religious fervor, there are "spiritual minded" politicians who make it illegal for an estimated 10-15% of Americans to marry, to be able to visit each other in the hospital, to be able to attend proms or events with the person of their own cchoosing, to even be employed. Due to nothing more than religious belief, many of our children are often being taught – in public school – that evolution is myth, that climate science is controversial, that being different is divinely incorrect. While pastors and priests preach politics from the pulpit without a worry about taxation, NASA is being defunded, teachers are forced to buy their own supplies, roads go unmended, and millions have been going uninsured. While you "mind your own business", funerals and clinics are picketed by protestors who tell people dealing with the worst stresses of their lives that they are going to burn in a fiery pit of demons and torture – all in the name of religion.

      March 24, 2013 at 9:09 am |
  4. Observer

    Even rich people can end up poor if they keep spending money like a fish goes through water. Though commendable, I don't see how this guy's acts are sustainable. Sounds like he go a big ball of cash from Glaxo Smith-Kline and the article doesn't mention any other source of income but just lots of huge donations. I wonder when it will run out.

    March 24, 2013 at 8:54 am |
    • Dan Roper

      He just wants to stop discrimination against Atheists. Just read the comments and see how Christians defend their beliefs. Atheists are still non-persons in many places. Specifically in the US.

      March 24, 2013 at 9:13 am |
  5. o

    YHWH is God

    March 24, 2013 at 8:54 am |
    • JH1

      Zeus is God.

      March 24, 2013 at 8:57 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      common mistake...you mean YHVH...and he was made up by men, justlike all the other gods that man has created.

      March 24, 2013 at 8:57 am |
  6. Which god?

    Atheism is a religion like baldness is a hair color.

    March 24, 2013 at 8:53 am |
    • nanee

      Weak. Please bring a stronger defense next time someone finds a correlation between you and hate filled beliefs

      March 24, 2013 at 8:55 am |
    • JH1

      Why do you hate leprechauns so much?

      March 24, 2013 at 8:57 am |
  7. Avdin

    Discrimination against atheists? are you kidding me? you can hardly get a job teaching the sciences at a secular university if you claim to have any sort of religious affiliation. Heck, even applying to a scientific program at a state university I was asked if the fact that my parents are missionaries meant that I wasn't going to do proper science. They didn't even ask me about my personal beliefs. They just assumed. despite the fact that I said no it would not hamper or effect my scientific endeavors in any way and demonstrated it with good research this was still a major reason they chose to reject my application. That's discrimination.

    March 24, 2013 at 8:53 am |
    • Josef F

      Maybe you were just a crappy applicant.

      March 24, 2013 at 8:56 am |
  8. Tbickle

    I think in the absence of Faith; come Indifference...how do you rally people who shrug at organized religion? This campaign is silly.

    March 24, 2013 at 8:52 am |
  9. nyiballs

    It stuns me how the religious choose to judge this person and atheists as a whole. For the faithful, I am pretty sure there is a phrase, "judge not, lest ye be judged." For those that believe in God, it is God's work to judge the non-believers.

    I don't see atheists forcing their beliefs on anyone. I see a group of people who wants others to know that they exists, that they are not afraid, and that they do not want to be discriminated against. For centuries, religions have attempted to recruit, and expand, and grow their power and influence. I have yet to have an atheist knock on my front door to spread the word of their beliefs though.

    The first amendment, the reason this country was founded, was freedom of religion. You believe what you want to, and I can believe what I want to. In turn, the first rule of religions is, have faith and you will be rewarded. It should be no concern to you what I believe. Share your beliefs, educate me, but in the end, YOU cannot make the decision for ME. Only I can decide what to believe.

    If everyone shared that philosophy, we'd all be better off for it.

    March 24, 2013 at 8:52 am |
    • Deb

      balls–you're right!–so why all the effort by this dude to ALSO try and convince others of his 'non-belief?'-ok so–you don't believe...big deal...move along and simply live your life like the rest of us.

      March 24, 2013 at 8:56 am |
  10. cg

    Religions are man made. that's a fact. Is there a God? well, since we don't know ourselves, many of us wish it to be true, but in the end, the atheists basically believes that all we need is to believe in ourselves, which, in that respect, I do not contradict. At this point in time, Religion is a crutch. Our moral compass should come from within. Not because of God. To many atrocities have been done in the name of God and religion. And I'm not targeting any single religion either.

    March 24, 2013 at 8:51 am |
    • TOOZX5

      is there multiple gods? Is there fire breathing dragons? Is there fairies? The list is endless & equally nonsensical.

      March 24, 2013 at 9:00 am |
  11. Solomon Walker

    While organized religion isn’t exactly perfect, faith in its own regard can be when one, through their own spiritual countenance, has a personal relationship with God, and learns to appreciate life and the world. Asking the planet to repeal 2000 years of faith is a wieldy chore for the lion-hearted, never mind the feeble.

    Mr. Steifel has a tough row to hoe.

    March 24, 2013 at 8:51 am |
  12. The Anti Christ

    I have no prpblem with Atheists. They do my masters bidding well, and will be rewarded by The Master as promised.

    March 24, 2013 at 8:51 am |
    • Josef F

      There is no anti christ just like there is no god.

      March 24, 2013 at 8:57 am |
    • The Anti Christ

      Josef keep up the good work, convert many and you will be rewarded by The Master.

      March 24, 2013 at 9:05 am |
  13. Solomon Walker

    Yeah...I'm not seeing some well written comments posting.
    Readers beware that likely atheists at CNN's IT staff are blocking your responses out.

    March 24, 2013 at 8:51 am |
    • I Am God

      Beware that Solomon Walker is just a trolling and looking to make an excuse for one or more of his ridiculous comments being banned.

      March 24, 2013 at 9:00 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      There is a word filter in play. If your post is not working try editing it using spaces or dots or whatever. It is not a discrimination factor, it is simply a filter.

      March 24, 2013 at 9:03 am |
  14. chentwinks

    And his mission is helping the world... how? It's jerks like this that give us Atheists a bad name. Acceptance and tolerance goes both ways.

    March 24, 2013 at 8:50 am |
  15. Pierre

    Did you know that 11 out of the first 28 popes were martyred? Problems convincing people to believe lies?

    March 24, 2013 at 8:49 am |
  16. A dose of reality

    No matter how you dress it up, there are some fundamental difficulties with Christianity that are pretty hard to overcome.
    1. At its most fundamental level, Christianity requires a belief that an all-knowing, all-powerful, immortal being created the entire Universe and its billions of galaxies 13,720,000,000 years ago (the age of the Universe) sat back and waited 10,000,000,000 years for the Earth to form, then waited another 3,720,000,000 years for human beings to gradually evolve, then, at some point gave them eternal life and sent its son to Earth to talk about sheep and goats in the Middle East.
    While here, this divine visitor exhibits no knowledge of ANYTHING outside of the Iron Age Middle East, including the other continents, 99% of the human race, and the aforementioned galaxies.
    Either that, or it all started 6,000 years ago with one man, one woman and a talking snake. Either way “oh come on” just doesn’t quite capture it.
    2. This ‘all loving’ god spends his time running the Universe and spying on the approximately 7 billion human beings on planet Earth 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He even reads their minds (or “hears their prayers”, if you see any difference) using some kind of magic telepathic powers. He also keeps his telepathic eye on them when they are not praying, so as to know if they think bad thoughts (such as coveting their neighbor) so he knows whether to reward or punish them after they die.
    3. Having withheld any evidence of his existence, this god will then punish those who doubt him with an eternity burning in hell. I don’t have to kill, I don’t have to steal, I don’t even have to litter. All I have to do is harbor an honest, reasonable and rational disbelieve in the Christian god and he will inflict a grotesque penalty on me a billion times worse than the death penalty – and he loves me.
    4. The above beliefs are based on nothing more than a collection of Bronze and Iron Age Middle Eastern mythology, much of it discredited, that was cobbled together into a book called the “Bible” by people we know virtually nothing about, before the Dark Ages.
    5. The stories of Christianity are not even original. They are borrowed directly from earlier mythology from the Middle East. Genesis and Exodus, for example, are clearly based on earlier Babylonian myths such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Jesus story itself is straight from the stories about Apollonius of Tyana, Ho.rus and Dionysus (including virgin birth, the three wise men, the star in the East, birth at the Winter solstice, a baptism by another prophet, turning water into wine, crucifixion and rising from the dead).
    6. The Bible is also literally infested with contradictions, outdated morality, and open support for the most barbarous acts of cruelty – including, genocide, murder, slavery, r.ape and the complete subjugation of women. All of this is due to when and where it was written, the morality of the times and the motives of its authors and compilers. While this may be exculpatory from a literary point of view, it also screams out the fact that it is a pure product of man, bereft of any divine inspiration.
    7. A rejection of the supernatural elements of Christianity does not require a rejection of its morality. Most atheists and secular humanists share a large amount of the morality taught today by mainstream Christianity. To the extent we reject Christian morality, it is where it is outdated or mean spirited – such as in the way it seeks to curtail freedoms or oppose the rights of $exual minorities. In most other respects, our basic moral outlook is indistinguishable from that of the liberal Christian – we just don’t need the mother of all carrots and sticks hanging over our head in order to act in a manner that we consider moral.
    Falsely linking morality to a belief in the supernatural is a time-tested “three card trick” religion uses to stop its adherents from asking the hard questions. So is telling them it is “wrong to doubt.” This is probably why there is not one passage in the Bible in support of intelligence and healthy skepticism, but literally hundreds in support of blind acceptance and blatant gullibility.
    8. We have no idea of who wrote the four Gospels, how credible or trustworthy they were, what ulterior motives they had (other than to promote their religion) or what they based their views on. We know that the traditional story of it being Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is almost certainly wrong. For example, the Gospel of Matthew includes a scene in which Jesus meets Matthew, recounted entirely in the third person!! Nevertheless, we are called upon to accept the most extraordinary claims by these unknown people, who wrote between 35 to 65 years after Christ died and do not even claim to have been witnesses. It is like taking the word of an unknown Branch Davidian about what happened to David Koresh at Waco – who wrote 35 years after the fact and wasn’t there.
    9. When backed into a corner, Christianity admits it requires a “leap of faith” to believe it. However, once one accepts that pure faith is a legitimate reason to believe in something (which it most certainly is not, any more than “faith” that pixies exist is) one has to accept all other gods based on exactly the same reasoning. One cannot be a Christian based on the “leap of faith” – and then turn around and say those who believe in, for example, the Hindu gods, based on the same leap, got it wrong. In a dark room without features, any guess by a blind man at the direction of the door is as valid as the other 359 degrees.
    Geography and birthplace dictates what god(s) one believes in. Every culture that has ever existed has had its own gods and they all seem to favor that particular culture, its hopes, dreams, and prejudices. Do you think they all exist? If not, why only yours?
    Faith is not belief in a god. It is a mere hope for a god, a wish for a god, no more substantial than the hope for a good future and no more universal than the language you speak or the baseball team you support.

    March 24, 2013 at 8:49 am |
    • mark

      Dose you are so good at copying and pasting. Poser!

      March 24, 2013 at 8:52 am |
    • Deb

      Another dose of reality....if you don't believe...then simply don't believe!-why the desperate need to convince others?–what they believe is simply none of your (or this Atheists) business!

      March 24, 2013 at 8:53 am |
    • Sven3487nnfwe843nyffhsirlmosie82347542vs34ff5436hhht57ehthdt573m90734vf5236563gferwrttgfwfwre5t

      I appreciate your candidness as someone who was a former atheist/rationalist I too found many faults in Christian ideology when I first began to seek answers to questions that had plagued me my entire life. Why I am here? How did I come to be? I studied many faiths, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity and really struggled to find meaning. I can only tell you that from my experience that when I can into contact with the Resurrected Christ that my mind, heart, and life changed. It was not a Bible or a set of theories or ideologies that set this in motion, it was a real meeting with Him that brought me to where I am today. I believe all people are seeking answers, truth, and where some people are on this road God seems to be a mean, vindictive, stern task master who is waiting for any little excuse to punish anyone of us. The truth is our pain, our sufferings, our lack of life are self inflicted. Christ promised life, we want death. It's a simple as that. When I walk outside and see the sun, the clouds, the birds, the flowers, I sense God's presence everywhere, I for one cannot see how one would not be able to see that but that is me. I wish you all the best and always God bless.

      March 24, 2013 at 8:57 am |
    • poweredbylinux

      You're right, "It is a mere hope for a god, a wish for a god"... Humans have always wanted to believe in a god. You can find this by studying ancient civilizations.

      March 24, 2013 at 8:59 am |
    • zeyn2010

      True... religion and faith of a person depends on where they were born in the world and who they were born to. I don't know how that can be considered divine...

      March 24, 2013 at 9:00 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Deb: If those beliefs are stepping on equal rights for all, then yes it is our business.

      March 24, 2013 at 9:05 am |
  17. Sven3487nnfwe843nyffhsirlmosie82347542vs34ff5436hhht57ehthdt573m90734vf5236563gferwrttgfwfwre5t

    As a person who love Jesus I do not see what this campaign is attempting to accomplish. As far as I know, in my own experience both as an atheist and a believer, a person's religious or non-religious beliefs hardly make one a target for discrimination in this land. In other countries like Saudi Arabia, China, North Korea, I can see where a belief in a God not endorsed by the state could lead to negative consequences. The man obviously is intelligent, successful, and has a lot of time, energy, and money. Instead of pouring it into believing in nothing why not try to help those out who need help? I am not judging the man because I do not know him but even some who is a hardened atheist/humanist believes in charity and good will. Look at a guy like Bill Gates, rich beyond anyone's dreams, I've never really heard him talk about his beliefs, yet his extensive charity work has helped millions of people (although Windows hurts a lot of people, just kidding BG!!!!...lolol) wish this guy all best, and always God bless.

    March 24, 2013 at 8:49 am |
    • funfly

      Bill Gates is an Atheist !!!!

      March 24, 2013 at 9:05 am |
    • Christian7

      funfly, If Bill Gates is an atheist then he will be very poor. He will be penniless for eternity.

      March 24, 2013 at 9:10 am |
  18. Which god?

    All gods exist, but only in the minds of their believers.

    March 24, 2013 at 8:49 am |
    • nanee

      You believe in this guy, so by your logic, he is your god. Weak

      March 24, 2013 at 8:49 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magic Underwear

      @ nanee -ummm, you haven't studied formal logic, have you?

      March 24, 2013 at 8:51 am |
    • TOOZX5

      @ nanee – he doesn't believe in that guy. That guy is simply another atheist. Atheist accept that people are mere humans, they don't claim people are gods like religions do. So your reasoning is illogical.

      March 24, 2013 at 8:56 am |
    • Christian7

      By what means do you know that gods do not exist? Did you look everywhere? You would have to understand every possible thing to understand if something or someone did not exist. Proving a negative is not logical. You lack the capacity to determine if God does not exist.

      March 24, 2013 at 9:15 am |
  19. Lisa

    So this guy is an evangelist for atheism? Ironic, no?

    March 24, 2013 at 8:47 am |
    • burfle

      Exactly, evangelisim is the problem...

      March 24, 2013 at 8:50 am |
    • mark

      Damien? The Omen 666 Yikes!

      March 24, 2013 at 8:50 am |
    • At least Thank the Sun

      Exactly. I like my closet. If I want to be pule out of my closet, I'll ask. I say keep the Faith, and the Non faith you yourself, Thankyouverymuch.

      March 24, 2013 at 8:51 am |
    • funfly

      And exactly Why is that ironic ?

      March 24, 2013 at 8:57 am |
  20. Deb

    This man is making Atheism a new religion...it gives him the faith (money and power) to believe NOT to believe and to try and convince others to do the same. He's a snake charmer just like all the rest...

    March 24, 2013 at 8:47 am |
    • TOOZX5

      Not believing a made up claim with no evidence isn't faith. Simply a rejection based on reason. Believers are making the claim and have yet to prove it beyond a mere myth. Taking a default position of reality doesn't create a religion.

      March 24, 2013 at 8:52 am |
    • funfly

      So you're saying faith is all about money and power ? You're absolutely right, I agree with you completely,that's one the reasons I left my imaginary friends behind,long time ago.(and the rest of the religious non-sense)

      March 24, 2013 at 9:01 am |
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About this blog

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.