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
[twitter-follow screen_name='DanMericaCNN']

(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. Asydrarlild

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    April 9, 2013 at 11:51 pm |
  2. Dawkins is an idiot

    N. Korea – atheist state

    April 9, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
    • the real Tom


      April 9, 2013 at 10:48 pm |
    • clarity

      Quite interesting – isn't it, Tom that Douglas and Diai's posts tend to come out right around when Chad gets to continue his other ongoing discussions? . . .

      April 9, 2013 at 10:53 pm |
    • the real Tom

      Hmm. I hadn't noticed that, but I have long suspected that Chad posts under a whole sh!t-load of other names.

      I think Mark from Middle River does it, too, even though both he and Chad adamantly deny doing so.

      April 9, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
    • Shane

      And Saudi Arabia and Iran are pretty much Theocracies, whats your point?

      April 10, 2013 at 2:11 am |
  3. Mike D

    "Discrimination comes from ignorance" yet this Todd Steifel guys is doing exactly that, discriminating against religious believers. Sounds a little hypocritical, no??

    April 9, 2013 at 8:59 pm |
    • Praise the Lord!

      Descrimination and hypocracy...the article says that Stiefel is an ex-Catholic. Sounds like he hasn't completely lost his faith.

      April 9, 2013 at 9:42 pm |
    • Dippy's Assistant

      "Descrimination and hypocracy"


      April 9, 2013 at 9:49 pm |
    • sam stone

      how is he discriminating against christians, mike?

      April 11, 2013 at 2:11 am |
  4. Salero21

    OK atheists, can you be anymore stupid than that?

    April 9, 2013 at 8:49 pm |
    • clarity

      Let's continue, Salero21. You were going to tell me the names of the authors of the Gospels, remember? Are you having trouble with that question, Salero21?

      April 9, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
    • Salero21

      😛 I was going to tell you that! When did that happen? Besides being an Ignorant and stupid atheist; are you also now a hypocrite and lazy liar?

      April 9, 2013 at 9:06 pm |
    • Salero21

      Can anyone understand now why atheists are so stupid?

      April 9, 2013 at 9:07 pm |
    • clarity

      You silly Salero. It's on page 69 where you last gave up AGAIN, trying to answer the question. actually people replied to your post there at April 8, 2013 at 4:36 pm .

      Soooo – did you find an answer yet? All we want to know is who wrote the Gospels? That should be easy, right?

      April 9, 2013 at 9:20 pm |
    • Statimtek

      Atheists stupid? Theists believe in a supernatural,invisable being with no plausible or credible proof that he exists,they govern their whole lives around a book written in the 1st century by unreliable sources who probably wern't eevn their at the time,thus its all hearsay.Theists believe in fairytales and base their lives on wish thinking.Come on! Who is REALLY the stupid ones here???

      April 9, 2013 at 9:22 pm |
    • the real Tom

      Oh, look, Salero just got home from his shift at the sewage treatment plant. Bet he smells just swell.

      April 9, 2013 at 9:26 pm |
  5. whatever

    Athiests have an irrational desire for nothing to make everything. It shows.

    April 9, 2013 at 8:41 pm |
    • clarity

      Do you think that's clever?

      April 9, 2013 at 8:46 pm |
  6. matt

    These atheist are zealots and will try to destroy any establish religion for their own selfish aggrandizement. Stiefel based on the things he has said is a liar trying to make people believe that he once was a Christian - a Catholic at that. I doubt that he has even gone to any church without his parents urging him. I believe he has been a rebel during his formative years and this is a way of getting back to his family who I supposed made him go to church inspite of his negative beliefs. The only other explanation is that he is a person possessed by his own egoistic and most probably megalomaniac dreams.

    April 9, 2013 at 6:21 pm |
    • Mike


      April 9, 2013 at 10:11 pm |
    • Alex

      I'm curious, how can you tell "based on things he has said" that he wasn't once a Christian? What, specifically, would lead you to that conclusion? You seem to be inventing details of his life for no other reason than it suits you to do so. We live in a predominantly Christian culture. Catholicism is a heavy hitter in the northeast (where he grew up). The odds seem pretty good that his family would have been Catholic. And, as a child, he would have accepted the teachings of his family as... Well, gospel. The journey from faith to a more naturalistic world view is one that requires a person to be able to reason for themselves. It takes time and a certain degree of mental maturity. As such, I don't really see the jarringly obvious signs of subterfuge that seemingly jump right out at you. Perhaps you could illuminate us with more of your insights?

      April 10, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
  7. Marcus Tridellas

    The same atheists who argue that their is no attack on Christianity are saying that they are the ones being persecuted?

    April 9, 2013 at 5:58 pm |
  8. terre haute

    The abject lack of rational thought in 90% of these comments is offensive. That is all.

    April 9, 2013 at 4:41 pm |
  9. Linda


    April 9, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
    • Lamentations

      Yawn – why are Christian "rock" bands so booooooorriiinggggggg! lol.

      April 9, 2013 at 4:09 pm |

  10. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=_ZrTeFLIR30

    April 9, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • Dawkins is an idiot

      Evolution is a myth. Mutations do not create new species. Natural selection does not create new species.

      April 9, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
    • clarity

      Lol. Evolution a myth?? Someone is not quite up to date on the latest in science. No surprise there, though. The religious feel comfy with their heads buried in ancient sand.

      April 9, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
    • Science

      Hey ...........is an idiot

      New woodland lizard found in Peru !

      Evolutions wins time for god(s) to get the hell out of the way !

      April 9, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
    • 1914

      Regardless of if the Bible is true or false... The "available" evidence and facts do not disprove the existence of a "Creator"

      Evolution is still in a theory state... So in short Atheism is classified as a "faith" (Before responding look up the definition of faith)

      There are no moral "requirements" for one to follow in order for them to be apart of the Atheist faith... All one has to do is believe that there is no God per se. So in short the lack of a belief in a God does not, in its own, benefit humanity either, therefor leaving it in each individual's hands to act in accord to their neighbor's best interest...

      April 9, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
    • Kilto

      Psalms 14:1 "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God..."

      April 9, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
    • Lamentations

      @1914 has some common misconceptions

      April 9, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
    • Stephen Hawking is an Idiot


      April 9, 2013 at 5:46 pm |


      April 9, 2013 at 6:33 pm |
  11. Dawkins is an idiot

    Atheists belong to a destructive cult. Their god is Charles Darwin and their modern day leader is Dawkins.

    April 9, 2013 at 11:56 am |
    • clarity

      You don't seem to know much about current evolutionary theory nor atheism, based on this pathetic, simplistic, childish rant. Perhaps you should explain your position in greater depth – you know, to get past the lunacy.

      April 9, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
  12. clarity


    April 9, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • Dawkins is an idiot

      Who cares what this chain smoking drunk ever had to say

      April 9, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
    • clarity

      So that's your only rebuttal of someone's point of view is a personal attack? Wow. That says a lot about you.

      April 9, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  13. Dawkins is an idiot

    Atheists belong to a dogmatic dangerous cult and their god is Charles Darwin. Their modern day leader is Dawkins. (Darwin wrote that the civilized races would replace the s@v@ge races)

    April 9, 2013 at 11:20 am |
    • clarity

      You don't seem to know much about current evolutionary theory nor atheism, based on this pathetic, simplistic, childish rant. Perhaps you should explain your position in greater depth – you know, to get past the lunacy.

      April 9, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
  14. faith

    who was he?

    April 9, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • red delicious

      I have been wondering the same thing.

      April 9, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
    • red delicious

      Everything says Jesus, but the atheists don't like the bible.

      April 9, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
  15. clarity


    April 9, 2013 at 10:12 am |
  16. clarity

    So, faith, Salero21, Kilto, let's get back to where we were yesterday – who are the authors of the gospels – hmmmmm?????

    You stumbled on this question yesterday badly. Why is it that Christians scream and cry at atheists and run and duck until it's safe to scream and cry some more when they are faced with that question? You know, because we have to get to the bottom of that to solve the mystery of the supernatural characteristics of Jesus.

    April 9, 2013 at 10:07 am |
    • Kilto

      Why dont you pick up the good book (bible) and figure it out on your own if you really want to know? If your value your time so much I don't understand why you would take so much time out to try and discredit Christianity? Your views toward the matter are obtuse and quite frankly doesn't hold any water.

      April 9, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
    • clarity

      Common ploy of the fundie Christian (Kilto) - afraid to attempt to answer direct questions. They don't seem to want to face facts (or more importantly lack of facts) regarding their beliefs.

      April 9, 2013 at 3:26 pm |
    • Kilto

      There is no ploy here. I am giving you sound advice. It is your choice whether you take it or not. Makes no difference to me except you can't really expect people to listen to you when you are telling them to basically look it up for yourself. Just giving you a taste of your own medicine.

      April 9, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
    • laststonecarver

      sometimes they can't remember what their name is –

      No doubt about it! Atheist are like the proverbial monkeys in a barrel.
      April 8, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Report abuse | Reply
      Well, since you refuse to discuss your beliefs, Salero – maybe I can throw up a video and you could discuss that – how would that work out? Here goes...
      April 8, 2013 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
      The real Tom
      Maybe you should give him a map and a flashlight, clarity. Then hand him his ass and see if he can find it.
      April 8, 2013 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
      His panic
      @Fuzzed clarity,
      How about answer and/or refute my post below first you fool!
      April 8, 2013 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
      Where was your question – His panic? When?
      April 8, 2013 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
      @Fussy clarity,
      I think he mistype my instead of his, but is a good question, yeah; how about trying to answer my post about ALL of the TRANSFORMATION processes that are intrinsically part of Creation as a whole? Those processes that foolish atheists and Idolaters confuse all the time with the so called "Evolution".
      April 8, 2013 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
      "he mistype"
      Who is he? What are you blabbing about?
      April 8, 2013 at 6:42 pm | Report abuse |
      clarity is a fool as well. Ask her what she believes in and she can't give you a straight answer.
      April 8, 2013 at 6:44 pm | Report abuse |

      Sorry 'faith' couldn't be in this, she was talking to herself on another blog –

      April 9, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
  17. Dawkins is an idiot

    N. Korea is an atheist state

    April 9, 2013 at 9:32 am |
    • HotAirAce

      Given that the USA does not have a state sponsored religion, isn't it an "atheist state" too?

      April 9, 2013 at 9:39 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Like most despotic regimes, Dear Leader has replaced the worship of gods with the worship of the leader instead.
      Instead of saying grace at dinner and thanking God, the people of North Korea have been indoctrinated for generations to thank Dear Leader. All the things people praise God(s) for (food, health, nice weather, a good crop etc) are attributed to him instead.
      North Koreans are victims of a cult of personality as opposed to a cult of divinity.

      April 9, 2013 at 9:47 am |
    • lathebiosas

      Wrong, their leaders think they ARE gods. That's probably too deep for you to understand, so I'll bring ot to your level.. Hitler was a Catholic.

      April 9, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • Jim P.

      Nope. They worship Kim Jong Dingdong. You better have his portrait up and his books handy if you want to survive there just like other theocracies. You can be jailed for taking an "unflatering" photo of one of his statues.

      If ever there was such a thing as idolatry, NK practices it.

      April 9, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
  18. laststonecarver

    @Salero21 – break it down
    I'am so totally stomping on the Cons-ti-tu-tional, civil and Legal Rights of atheists –
    – You forgot Human Rights.

    and there's nothing they poor people can do about it! –
    – Stomping on the poor people, brilliant, deeply compelling, a true Christian

    Is totally unforgivable on my part to do such a thing! –
    – But its okay, its not the first time, and you used a different name previously.

    I hope I didn't misspelled or mistype anything this time, –
    – It is the cross, that you will always bear, for your sins

    otherwise the legal enforcement Branch of atheism THE GRAMMAR GESTAPO OF THE INTERNET –
    – grandmar, whooda thunk enyone wood need that kinda sigh-ents

    will club me with toothpicks till I stop living. –
    – This must be from a biblical verse, as it seems unbelievable.

    April 9, 2013 at 8:56 am |
  19. roadworker

    I hardly think that 3.5 million dollars could make much difference in influencing public opinion. what is driving people to speak out is the increasingly untenable position of religious dogma. The average five year old knows better than to believe some of the nonsense spouted by religious orders.

    April 9, 2013 at 8:42 am |
    • biggles


      April 9, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
    • biggles

      That's why our average atheist/idiot is 55 years old and still doesn't have a clue

      April 10, 2013 at 11:41 am |
  20. guest

    I believe because there is so much evil: there must be a devil; because there is so much good: there must be a loving God. (This is only a minor reason, not the total of my belief in God.)
    How do atheists account for so much evil vs. so much good? I do not believe that most atheists are evil in the way that the world defines evil, but most of them are very good people. That is not to say: Atheism is good.

    April 9, 2013 at 5:55 am |
    • sam stone

      there are people doing good actions, and people doing bad actions.

      April 9, 2013 at 8:19 am |
    • Susan StoHelit

      You really believe you would be an evil person without god? That there is no good without someone standing over you, threatening you with the greatest punishment possible if you do bad, and the greatest reward possible, if you do good?

      It takes THAT MUCH, to make you do good?

      I'm an atheist. I'm good, for nothing. No promises, no threats, and I'm able to be a decent person. For anyone who is not – being good only because you're under threat is better than being evil, but not by much.

      April 9, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • WASP

      @guest: "How do atheists account for so much evil vs. so much good?"

      simple answer..............humans.
      humans can do things that unite and aid others or they can do things to catagorize and alienate others.

      April 9, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • Jim P.

      This is called "dualism" and Christianity rejects it.

      If there is a god that creates good, why is there evil? If the good god is not powerful enough to wipe out evil what makes it a god and if it is powerful enough but chooses not to do so, what kind of "good" is that?

      You also make a logical fallacy: The assumption that if the other person cannot explain something than your explanation must be the correct one. Doesn't work.

      April 9, 2013 at 7:49 pm |
    • biggles

      The first time an atheist told the truth. Susan Dorothy is good for nothing's amen

      April 9, 2013 at 9:00 pm |
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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.