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. atheist Realism

    I too was a catholic,, a child sodomized by priests and a diocese who sent down their goons to threaten. Yep, at age 8.

    Today I see the catholics calling us liars and fighting laws that would expose the truth to help the many children victims. I see them deflect with statements as others do it rather than setting the example on helping. I see other christians not standing for victims and their allowing the catholic church have their way in the continued destruction of already destroyed lives.

    This is religion and belief? No doubt it's nothing more than a bunch of people off on a selfish salvatiot reality.n trip unable to accep

    March 24, 2013 at 11:09 am |
    • atheist Realism

      This is religion and belief? No doubt it's nothing more than a bunch of people off on a selfish salvation trip unable to accept reality destroying others along their path.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:11 am |
  2. Ted

    American Atheist is described as the "most-in-your-face Atheist group in the country". Hmm... when was the last time you heard ANY Christian or other religious group described in this way? Not sure that even the Krishna's, Mormon's or even Westboro ever earn this type of designation. In my lifetime I have been approached regularly by believers readyand wiling to spout all kinds of offensive garbage my way. I am not sure I have ever been physically present where an Atheist started an argument with a Christian. I know it happens, but this kind of reporting screams of the kind of unknowing bias that reporters often have when reporting on a minority group who is being repressed. Black Panthers and NOW get in-your-face not Klansmen.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:08 am |
    • taxasjimbob

      Almost all christians I meet are "in your face" about it. After years of listening to their mythological tales and flawed logic I now refuse to debate the issue unless they agree up front to accept the possibility that I might be right and they might be wrong. No use even taliking to someone who's mind is closed to new ideas.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:19 am |
  3. Joe_ma


    When we hang the capitalists they will sell us the rope we use.

    Joseph Stalin

    HA ha ha ha... What a sick mind of an Atheist.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:07 am |
    • Alex R

      I could list every theist in history that has been responsible for mass murder, but I don't have all week.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:10 am |
    • atheist Realism

      Stalin thought he was a god,, dictators and religion, the same

      March 24, 2013 at 11:12 am |
    • Draax

      Stalin was an atheist? Interesting considering he was named after saint joseph and was the product of a seminary. In addition, although he did make a large effort to remove religion, in order to gain power, he actually reinstated the Russian orthodox church once he was firmly in power.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:18 am |
    • taxasjimbob

      Stalin and Hitler were the products of christian upbringings. Why do christians choose to simply deny that all the evil they have caused throughout history did not happen?

      March 24, 2013 at 11:22 am |
  4. ggman

    I would get a different picture! At first glance I thought it was Justin Timberlake! ROFL. Plus I like how CNN sugar coats this guy.."Went into the family business of fighting skin diseases" Translation- rich boy that owns a pharmaceutical company for God know, no pun intended, what they pushed to get rich.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:06 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Yeah, when he COULD have been making his money the old-fashioned way, the way the televangelists do it, by bilking senile grandmas out of their Social Security checks with steady demands for "love offerings".

      March 24, 2013 at 11:11 am |
  5. wut?!?

    This guy is just milking the cash cow, but he won't get a cent of my money. I'm a devout Atheist and make no excuses or apologies to anyone. Don't like it, fu** off!

    March 24, 2013 at 11:06 am |
  6. Jim

    The biggest challenge facing atheism is that many atheists are not content to just "come out," but feel a need to attack their religious neighbors. Imagine how far gay marriage would go if gay advocates talked about how stupid straight people were.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:06 am |
    • Junger

      *citation needed.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:17 am |
    • Moby Schtick

      Most atheists don't do as you assume, and it's not the biggest problem facing atheism by a long shot.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:19 am |
  7. Jack

    He went to Duke University. He inherited the "family business". And now he's on a quest to promote atheism? Really? Use your time and money in better ways dude.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • Ghia

      Since you think something else would be a better use of his money, he should therefor listen to you?????

      March 24, 2013 at 11:13 am |
  8. lancesackless

    Yawn...another schmuck with money pushing his own ideals. He must be best buds with Bloomberg

    Atheism the next civil right?!?!? BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAA!

    Hey, that's why I like the 1st Amendment: You have every right to speak up on what you are passionate about...no matter how asinine it is. I may not agree with the statement, but I'll defend your right to say it.

    But seriously...thanks for the laugh. Atheism...next civil right like GLBT...*snicker*. Yeah, the slaves in olden times would sing their Atheist hymns in the fields. *giggle* Typical looney lib.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      THe slaves in the fields were fed Christianity to keep them humble and compliant till they could get their "pie in the sky bye and bye".
      It worked wonderfully well, too, because the Bible is riddled with approval of slavery and admonitions to be subservient to your masters.
      As Sam Harris remarked, "As a source of objective morality, the Bible is one of the worst books we have. It might have been the very worst, in fact — if we didn't also happen to have the Koran."

      March 24, 2013 at 11:09 am |
  9. RichardSRussell

    OK, the 5 minutes are up since I publicly mocked God on this forum by calling him a fraud and a phony.
    Some true believer claims "God will not be mocked", but I did it successfully.
    Just because HE was wrong doesn't prove that God doesn't exist, of course.
    But it does prove the guy doesn't know what he's talking about on THIS score.
    So what are chances he's got the rest of the fable right?
    Again, God, ptui, I spit in your non-existent face. I mock you.
    But not as much as I mock your willfully blind and deaf followers.
    Really, people, if God existed, wouldn't it be obvious?

    March 24, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • lancesackless

      Wanna know the best thing about Christopher Hitchens?

      He's dead. 😀

      March 24, 2013 at 11:06 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Hey, Lance – although Hitchens is, in fact, dead, his works, and words live on. In that limited sense, he is, in fact, immortal. Hundreds of years from now he will be revered as one of the intellectual giants that helped drag the human race, kicking and screaming, into the light and away from millennia of supersti-tious religious tripe.

      So, have YOU done anything that will grant YOU such a legacy, hundreds of years after you are dead?

      March 24, 2013 at 11:18 am |
    • donna

      Lance, I just bought The God Delusion last week. Does that mean that he's actually still alive??????

      March 24, 2013 at 11:38 am |
  10. MTD

    I don't believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny; however, I don't feel the need to spend millions to prove my point those who may. This guy needed to be hugged more as a child.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      The followers of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny aren't spending billions to convince you of their existence, either, or oppress you if you scoff at them.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:06 am |
    • MTD

      Richard, then just ignore them.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:08 am |
  11. Red

    Money, money, money. That's all I saw in this dude after reading the article.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:05 am |
  12. Luke

    Why would Atheism need a 'money man' – if you don't believe in God and think religion is a lot of hooey, why would it bother you that other people do believe? – if religion doesn't mean anything to you, what difference does it make what other people believe? – I don't want atheists trying to force their beliefs on me any more than I want religious people forcing their beliefs on me – I 'm an independent with no real denomination and I'm not a fan of organized religion – I have never understood hating somebody because of what religion they are, it doesn't matter to me what religion a person is, and I doubt it matters much to God – but I do believe in God and even though my feelings are complicated, they are my feelings and I don't want Atheists telling me what to think any more than I want religious people telling me what to think – my beliefs are my own.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:04 am |
    • 633music

      You see, just like the "God" stores that sell religion, atheists have gotten in on the fleecing of the sheep act as well!

      March 24, 2013 at 11:06 am |
    • JT

      Notice how you're bunching us all into one group and saying how our "doctrine" is to hate religious people. Not even close.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:08 am |
    • wut?!?

      Atheists aren't trying to tell you what to believe in, they're merely trying to get you to use your head a little and realize that you're praying to and worshipping something that simply doesn't exist. Churches bilk people out of billions of dollars a year selling their snake oils . . . Atheists are only trying to save you money in this unpredictable economy. Everyone likes money don't they?

      March 24, 2013 at 11:22 am |
  13. Surthurfurd

    This is a good reason to state one is agnostic. Let them argue on the side and focus on the important issues based on degrees of proof not degrees of badgering.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:04 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Agnostic defines knowledge not belief. You can be an agnostic theist or an agnostic atheist.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:19 am |
  14. 633music

    No matter how much "evidence" I am shown, I still do not believe in atheists...

    March 24, 2013 at 11:04 am |
    • Junger

      That is the dumbest statement I've read today.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:13 am |
    • mesamick

      Oh, so your a republican I see.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:13 am |
    • 633music


      March 24, 2013 at 11:29 am |
  15. pie

    Nobody would care about you god believing religious people, except you keep trying to run my world too.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:03 am |
    • mesamick

      The sooner the fantasy and delusion that there is some kind of a supreme being mastering over the universe and manuplating the very most minute details of each living human being on earth has been eliminated...the sooner we will have a fair, just and rational life experience on this planet.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:12 am |
  16. Brian S

    So, where are all the atheist charity groups out there? Are they too busy putting up billboards and youtube videos, like they have some kind of inside information on our place in the universe? All those irritating Christians with their bake sales and collecting clothes for the needy. They must be stopped!

    March 24, 2013 at 11:03 am |
    • Junger

      Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, any secular charity groups...

      March 24, 2013 at 11:09 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Doctors without Borders ...

      March 24, 2013 at 11:11 am |
    • Unintelligent Designer

      Doctors without borders (secular), Peace Corps (secular)...

      March 24, 2013 at 11:11 am |
    • Bob Carlson

      Atheist Charities like the American Red Cross, UNICEF, Planned Parenthood USA, Doctors Without Borders, Direct Relief International, and many many more. Educate yourself and just Google Atheist Charities. They do exist and they do good things.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:11 am |
    • Steve

      There are a few "atheist charity" groups out there, but mostly there are atheist philanthropists, including several billionaires whose names you would recognize. They don't plaster the word "atheist" all over their charitable works, because, to them, what matters is results, rather than who gets the credit.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:12 am |
    • JT

      Bill Gates is an Atheist and he's almost done eradicating Malaria in Africa...

      March 24, 2013 at 11:15 am |
    • Jeesh

      Brian S
      Charities that sell their BS along with what aid they give out have a hidden agenda. For example the little muther bi-tch Teresa used the money that came in to build an empire not help the suffering, get real.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:21 am |
  17. Alicia

    I respect people for their convictions being a Christian and I always tell them that, if they are 100% grounded and comfortable in their belief, nothing I say or do will convince them otherwise.

    This life is about choices and choice is all we have.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:03 am |
    • stanley

      "You have the right to your own opinions, but not your own facts."
      I agree completely that close-minded people are never going to change their minds. That's why you don't target close-minded people; you target open-minded people willing to learn something new. It's the same strategy that Obama and Romney used in the recent election–target the swing states.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:07 am |
  18. Tom

    As usual, the most pathetic, illogical, immature comments are from our gullible, religious sub species....

    March 24, 2013 at 11:02 am |
    • Mike

      Sure, but what if YOU are wrong? Enjoy the heat brother because that is what awaits you.
      And for the record, a TRUE Christian believes in loving ALL their brothers and sisters. Too many use their religion as justification to "hate" others. That is not the act of a true Christian.
      We, as Christians, disagree with many people for many reasons but one thing that distinguishes a true Christian is that they continue to love that person no matter their beliefs.
      Only repentence and faith in God and his son Jesus Christ though will get you into Heaven. Good deeds won't do it alone.
      So if you're wrong in your belief that there is no God then I truly feel sorry for you becaue if I'm right then God will judge and you will be judged harshly. But maybe you're right, so go on thinking that way if you wish. Just don't criticize others for their beliefs simply because you are an unbeliever.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:06 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      @ Mike – what if YOU're wrong??? Pascal's wager, my friend – there may be a god, and that god may HATE faith-types. Thenm you are SOL!

      March 24, 2013 at 11:10 am |
    • Junger

      Pascal's wager, Tom. Look it up.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:11 am |
    • stanley

      So YOU personally love non-believers. Do you think your God does? According to your own words:

      "Sure, but what if YOU are wrong? Enjoy the heat brother because that is what awaits you."

      It seems that He doesn't. By contrast, what if YOU are wrong? The worst that will happen to you is...nothing. You'll waste some time on a myth, but no atheist will try to intimidate you with an atheist hell or an atheist psychopathic god. The fact that atheists are winning on the basis of reason, and Christians are losing even with intimidation, shows how weak the Christian case really is.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:11 am |
    • Paul

      You can't just make yourself believe something if you can't support it. I can't believe 1 = 2 or that the sky is red, I don't care if you say you will torture me I wouldn't be able to actually believe it. No matter what I won't be able to make myself believe it.

      If you only say you believe in god because you are scared of what might happen if you don't, guess what you don't actually believe in god.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:24 am |
  19. Dana

    Here is one of many great reasons to not believe in that magical nonsense.


    March 24, 2013 at 11:02 am |
    • DJP

      Quite the unfortunate possition Bill Nye is taking. Believing in evolution is at least as irrational and makes life complicated as believing in God and his creation. Each require us to leave certain questions as unanswered. However with evolution we are asked to believe in a giant multi billion year set of virtually impossible coinciidences and base our belief of life on that.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:12 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      At least evolution has huge volumes of evidence to support it. More added every day.

      Not one shred of evidence showing any of the thousands of gods men have created for himself.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:16 am |
    • JT

      @DJP Do you even know what evolution is?

      March 24, 2013 at 11:19 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      @ DJP – Oh, that science thing again! Not to be trusted! Oh, now how is it that you can communicate your thoughts, and read the thoughts of others, from all over the world, instantaneously? Hmmmm – science? Yeah, and that law of gravity – that's some crazy stuff as well. Since we don;t know 100% everything about it, we better let the religitards teach their theory of "God's sticky invisible goo keeps people on the world"

      March 24, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • Moby Schtick

      DJP, you should take college classes to learn about evolution. Your misunderstanding of it causes you to make statements that prove your ignorance. Don't stay stupid.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • DJP

      Well apparently evolution has evolved into some other concept recently. As far as the science comment of course science exists and explains the world around us. Diverting the discussion in that fashion does not prove your point it mearly distracts from the discussion.

      March 24, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
  20. ggman

    I would get a different picture! At first glance I thought it was Justin Timberlake! ROFL

    March 24, 2013 at 11:01 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.