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. are122

    Swear there ain't no heaven and pray there ain't no hell...but ONLY your dying will tell. Do we have a spirit that will exist beyond death or are we equivalent to roaches that in the grand scheme of time only exist for a meaningless moment to reproduce and disappear unremembered in eternity? Until you die skeptics and speculators, no matter what you say, you will never really know.

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

      What about all those who swore to come back to their loved ones?

      March 24, 2013 at 11:24 am |
    • Rob Johnson

      I firmly believe in life after death, but I also believe that the standard Heaven/Hell mythology is nothing more than transparent propaganda designed to keep the sheep in line.

      As the article says, just because somebody doesn't buy in to mainstream Christianity doesn't mean they believe in nothing.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:36 am |
  2. eclectic8

    You can't disprove the existence of God. Even the big name atheist authors admit the possibility of God's existence.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:22 am |
    • Gadflie

      That's funny, pretending that the logical fallacy "negative proof" is actually evidence. Or are you saying that you truly believe that leprechauns possibly exist?

      March 24, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • tony

      In the same probability as winning every lottery that ever happens

      March 24, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • atheist Realism

      and you can't disprove the existence of the boggy man. Guess the boggy man exists with your logic.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      So? The onus is on the person who says that god exists. prove that god exists. What evidence do you have. Atheists simply say, we have not seen any proof that would lead one to conclude that a god exists. Show us sufficient relevant reliable credible evidence and we will believe.

      So, bring the evidence.

      Ummm, still waiting......

      March 24, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • SixDegrees

      And, once again, we have a demand for a negative proof – recognized as a fallacy for centuries, by the church no less, and forbidden in any court of law for the same reason.

      It is up to those making positive claims to provide positive evidence of their claims. It is NOT the responsibility of the skeptic to prove their assertions wrong.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:36 am |
  3. masonshew

    As an atheist, I think it's important to make society aware of my perspective without beating anyone over the head with it. The relational, "get to know us" approach is working wonders for the LGBT community. Militaristic, angry rants are only going to turn people away. It really is all about making connections with people, and giving them the opportunity to relate to your perspective on a personal level.

    Having said that, I think billboards and other marketing tactics can be used as the vehicle to provoke thought within a community. They can also be used to generate resentment. Bees, honey, vinegar and all that.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:22 am |
  4. The Problem with Miracles


    March 24, 2013 at 11:22 am |
  5. RichardSRussell

    I mocked God. I still mock God.
    I'm still here.

    "God will not be mocked"? Ha!

    God is a fraud. His followers try to be bullies by saying "My guy will beat you up", but the Big Guy never shows.

    You'd think they'd learn, but no. Willful ignorance seems to be almost (heh) a religion with them.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:21 am |
    • tony

      You can't argue with a dead leader.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:22 am |
  6. the AnViL™

    Christian7 ignorantly asked: "By what means do you know there is not life after death? You know everything and are incapable of error?"

    it's called biophysics and thermodynamics.

    when you cut off the oxygen to the brain, the neurons which comprise you, your memories...etc. decay and die.

    when the brain dies – the biochemical energy which powered those neurons obeys the laws of thermodynamics and "flows downhill", dissipating out into the surrounding system.

    there is no mechanism to cause all that energy to remain coherent. it spreads out into the surrounding system – like smoke from a blown-out candle, never to be reassembled again – for eternity.

    there are no "souls".

    the flat fact of the matter is – when we die – that's it. we silently and finally meet oblivion... forever.

    the good news is – when you die – you will have no knowledge of the fact – as the organ you once used to know things with will no longer exist.

    there simply is no afterlife. after life – there is only death.

    deal with it.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:21 am |
    • Alex R

      Why even bother leaving a scientific response, they'll just post a Bible quote to rebut you. Blind belief in ancient books makes me sad.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:25 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      shhhhhhhhhhh, you'll ruin the delusion...without that belief this entire next week holds no meaning for them....remember they live for death 😉

      March 24, 2013 at 11:25 am |
    • Face-Palm

      Everything you said is true. However, let’s set that aside. As a fellow Atheist, I ask if you really think truth matters at all for these people. There is no amount of truth that can penetrate the willfully ignorant mind that buries itself in the sand by choice.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:33 am |
    • the AnViL™

      you guys are no fun!

      March 24, 2013 at 11:37 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Face-Palm: It's almost a willful ignorance. I know some amazingly intelligent christian's but when it comes to their belief, there is no breaking it, no matter how much information you provide them with. Having lived in small towns and huge cities, I've noticed that with exposure comes differing views...so if you're not exposed to a differing view, you're not likely to change your stance....I believe that this is changing due to the explosion of mass media. There are definite risks with coming out as an Atheist for some people. For some people they hold on and pretend due to the risk of losing family, friends, in some cases employment. There are clergy out there who don't believe but yet stay due to this being the only life they know....they risk losing an income; they risk family...the same things we risk. Check out clergyproject.org

      March 24, 2013 at 11:43 am |
  7. tony

    The ninth commandment is the proof that judaism and christianity are based solely on foolish circular reasoning- and nothing else.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:20 am |
  8. theVenetian

    The article's author typifies the level of ignorance prevalent in the worshippers crowd. By calling atheism a "religious movement" he shows his utter lack of understanding of the word "religion" which is :" The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods." Fans of imaginary sky Daddies will do anything it seems to discredit a philosophical movement which opposes everything they stand for by lumping them with their own kind. It's desperate and patheti

    March 24, 2013 at 11:20 am |
  9. me

    Just a thought. Why can't we all believe what we want, without taking the rights of others? Is the Nativity scene or the Mennorah that offensive? Why must a simple Cross be removed because it offends a few? Doesn't our Country face bigger issues than where the Ten Commandments are placed or where a Mennorah is placed? I thought we were allowed Religious freedom. Having to remove these items doesn't sound like Freedom to me. Personally, I don't care what other's believe in, it's not my call. I have my beliefs, you have your's. Why must there be a right and wrong?

    March 24, 2013 at 11:20 am |
    • tony

      It gets our children killed in false wars.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:21 am |
    • atheist Realism

      it begins with stopping childhood brainwashing. In the end, we will have a more loving and compassionate society/world

      March 24, 2013 at 11:21 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Because our nation is founded on the principle that NO religion will rule through the power of the state. How do you think a Muslim would feel, walking into a courtroom with the 10 commandments plastered on the wall behind his judge? How would you feel, in the same situation, encountering a judge with quotes from the Koran prominently displayed in his court?

      If you don't see a problem with this, you seriously need to sit down and give it some deep thought.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:22 am |
    • Unintelligent Designer

      You can display religious symbols on private property. To the best of my knowledge, no one is trying to take that right away.

      March 24, 2013 at 11:30 am |
  10. Pope Benedict XVI

    Sign me up !

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

    The collection plate is absolute proof on god's non-existance.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:19 am |
  12. Thomas Jefferson

    Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:19 am |
  13. BlackDynamiteNYC

    This guy was way too smart, and asked too many questions to fall for religion.
    The more questions you ask, the more feeble the answers get.
    Religion is great for people who would rather not think for themselves too much.

    This guy is no sheep. The Force is strong with this one......

    March 24, 2013 at 11:18 am |
  14. JGN

    Well Joe ma, capitalism and communism being political systems and atheism being a belief system you are rather mixing your metaphors there.
    I am an outspoken atheist but I have to say that this rich ex-catholic who posts all the billboards is really not a very effective atheist; he's still reacting to his catholicism, rather than moving on in my opinion. Ted is correct, there are so many religious groups 'in your face' during every holiday (yes, don't forget the real meaning is 'holy day') and often selling religion at your own front door, but I really do not believe it's necessary for atheists to take on some of those odious characteristics in order to 'fight back'. Reason IS what fights back, and being reasonable means letting others hold their own beliefs no matter how ridiculous they seem to you. The exception is when those beliefs harm others, so yes I am fully supportive of the ousting of pedophiles in the catholic churches and making damn sure our leaders in this country are not at least fanatically religious so that they can more easily relate to the rest of the world. The billboards I do not find heartening however. Fanaticism in ANY guise has too many ulterior motives stacked up beside it. This guy should know this if he really did use his reason.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:18 am |
  15. Takaonna

    @Alex R : yes because you know the spanish crusades weren't a big mass murder... Also assuming because you beleave in a higher power that has no proof of existing makes people not want to kill mass amounts of people and Stallin was a nut job Hitler was a christian just keep going back and forth from here...

    March 24, 2013 at 11:18 am |
  16. openminded19

    to MO – we do not fear God for he, it, she, does not exist. You have your beliefs, I have my nonbeliefs.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:18 am |
  17. Face-Palm

    The golden rule…

    Why is it that the oppressed Atheists are more in line with the Golden Rule than the Religious?

    Just look below and read the hateful bile of the Religious compared to the measured kindness of the Atheists.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:16 am |
  18. atheist Realism

    I find it interesting that on religious articles, the believers use passages in their arguments when attacked. On atheist articles, atheists use common sense and logic in their arguments when attacked.

    My guess, if their were a god, these believers would be an insult to the intelligence he gave them.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:16 am |
  19. Luis Wu

    Christianity, like all religions, is nothing more than ancient mythology, written thousands of years ago by members of a primitive society in an effort to explain existence and comfort people in the face of their mortality. I've read both the old and new testaments cover to cover. I've read many other religious texts as well. They're all just ancient mythology from primitive cultures, nothing more. Period.

    When I look around, I don't see a god flying around in a cloud or pillar of fire, I don't see sticks turning into snakes, I don't see rivers turning to blood or wine, seas parting, etc. etc. If that stuff was real and happened then, it would be happening now. I don't see miracles happening, all I see is a lot of ignorant people blindly accepting ancient mythology as fact, while rejecting modern scientific knowledge. If people would use their brains for a change, THINK about it using logic, reason and objectivity, then they would understand that it's just old myths. It's just so utterly obvious.

    What religion you are is mostly determined by where you were born and which mythology you’ve been indoctrinated with since birth. That right there should tell you it’s not real.

    All the gods that have been worshipped throughout history would fill 10 football stadiums, but of course everyone believes that THEIRS is the only one that’s real. It’s just all so stupid.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:16 am |
    • Willy L

      René Descartes was a great philosopher who believed in reason and objectivity. He said "Cogito Ergo Sum". He believed in God and prove His existence. Did you read Descartes Mr Luis?

      March 24, 2013 at 11:37 am |
  20. Heather

    All intelligent people are atheists. Religious people are just stupid sheep who need the crutch of blind faith to get through life.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:16 am |
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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.