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. The real Tom

    Hahahaha. So the mad editor strikes again and most of Salero's idiotic posts are gone!

    April 27, 2013 at 8:24 pm |
    • Salero21

      That one more proof that atheism is stupidity in Full bloom.

      May 8, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
    • Salero21

      And then I can still see them "awaiting moderation" which is very strange given the fact that atheists are constantly posting all kind of vulgarities without any moderation. So that proves again that you're an a$$ with diplomas.

      May 8, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
  2. Science

    From Soup to Cells—the Origin of Life


    April 27, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
  3. Monday through Sunday

    On Monday I wanted to sit down and drink a beer and smoke a bowl.
    On Tuesday I wanted to drop mushrooms.
    On Wednsday I wanted to drop mushrooms and DMT and visit with green aliens who look like the Easter Island Heads
    On Thursday I wanted to injest all of the above and pray to them
    On Friday I wanted to expand my mind with astral travel and meditation
    On Saturday I wanted to sober up a bit and clear my mind with pure meditation
    On Sunday I wanted to visit with Allah or YHWH or whatever floated my boat.

    Which experience am I allowed to have under atheism, and which experiences will be no longer permitted? Where is the line exactly?

    April 24, 2013 at 11:31 am |
    • Atheist Jesus

      All things are possible with atheism, though if you actually believe in a deity as you pray then you would no longer be considered an atheist, so you would follow the strictures of whatever other group you would then fall into.

      April 24, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
  4. I'm a former who knows what

    I had a belief once. I really believed it too. I loved it, it was fun. It wasn't Christianity, or even anything I recognized as a religion. So, unfortunately I looked under the hood. Realized I couldn't proove it, sadly. It didn't hold up to much. After I crawled out from the rubble I thought to myself...well maybe I should have gone the standard religion route the whole time. Then I see atheism and think.."Oh no. You too?"

    April 23, 2013 at 7:19 pm |
    • I'm a former who knows what

      Sadly I never figured out how to write an intelligible comment, gerpa gerpa la la doodley doo!!!

      April 23, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
    • I'm a former who knows what

      Yeah but I learned not to be a jerk.

      April 23, 2013 at 9:19 pm |
  5. Hans

    "Just another daily reminder that atheism is stupidity in Full Bloom!"

    You are not a Christian and you bring shame to Christ.

    James 4:11-12
    Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

    James 1:26
    If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless.

    Ephesians 4:31-32
    Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

    April 22, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
  6. The real Tom

    Salero says: "You're just an A$$ with a diploma."

    @Salero: And you're an ass without one. I win.

    April 22, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
    • Salero21

      😀 Really, so let's see the Diploma!

      April 22, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
    • The real Tom

      It's not "a Diploma." It's several diplomas, honey. See if you can figure that out.

      April 23, 2013 at 11:07 am |
  7. The real Tom

    It's amusing to watch such an obvious troll as Salero show up and respond, day after day.

    He rises to the bait every time.

    April 22, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
    • Field Guide

      The animal referred to as "Salero21" is one of nature's most primitive creatures – barely possessing a brain:

      Class: Mammalia
      Order: Rodentia
      Family: Cricetidae
      Subfamily: Arvicolinae
      Tribe: Lemmini

      April 22, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
  8. Jm

    God is real, God saves and loves. He wants others to believe like him. There is no reason to waste time on "nothing" duh.

    April 22, 2013 at 1:48 am |
    • Yeah

      Religion IS wasting time on nothing.

      April 22, 2013 at 1:51 am |
  9. Clarity

    God is great!!! I am a firm believer in Jesus.

    April 20, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
    • clarity

      lowercase clarity says:

      One sect calls homosexuality an abomination while the next one (over 4,000,000 members) in the same denomination is already performing gay marriage.

      One sect, the Westboro Baptist Church believes Americans are being killed at war because America is too kind to "fags".

      One sect believes women to be subservient, while another sect in the same denomination promotes equality between the sexes.

      One sect believes that Jesus and Satan were brothers and that Christ will return to Jerusalem AND Jackson County, Missouri.

      Some believe the Pope is the Anti-Christ. Some believe Obama is the Anti-Christ.

      Some believe that celibacy is the only option for certain people, or for people in certain positions. Many of the people from these same institutions advocate against abortion, but pretend not to understand the realistic benefit of the morning after pill or even basic contraception; their unrealistic wishful thinking is causing the death of many at the hands of disease.

      In the U.S. recently we learned of the head of Lutheran CMS chastising a minister of that church for participating in a joint service for the victims of the Newtown school shooting.

      Conflicted right from the very beginning, Christianity continues to splinter and create more extreme divisions as time goes by, constantly subjecting others in its crossfire.

      April 20, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
  10. eno

    Religion was invented to control the foolish masses ... and that Salero idiot happily volunteered

    April 20, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
  11. eno

    Yeah .... thats right the noah thang...and one of his descendents name Lott offer his two virgin daughters to appease the angry crowds just to ptotect the two strangers (male) that they claim were angels sent to destroy the city...
    Wat da fkkk kind of god would let that happened...and this lott fkkk had gods ear... oh and somehow his wife dies ... and latet he empregnates his own daughters latet ina cave .... fkkn animal and agian god spoke to him...

    April 20, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
  12. Desktop universe

    I am still waiting for the universe to form on my desktop, atheists. What is the hold up? Steven Hawking was saying God wasn't needed to create a universe, and is claiming nothing can do it. OK, where is it? What is the secret chant to form it? Or is Steven Hawking shooting blanks? Literally.

    April 19, 2013 at 12:48 am |
    • Desktop universe

      Reports that some people paid $1000 for a ticket to listen to him talk about .... nothing.


      April 19, 2013 at 12:58 am |
    • laststonecarver

      @D U,
      Your environment creates you –
      Some name their environment as god –
      Your environment evolves, by how it affects you, and by how its' components effect it –
      Your environment changes by any activity from within or without –
      Your Destop Universe environment can evolve, simply by you pulling the plug on the computing device –
      Change is essential, Stagnation = Death

      April 19, 2013 at 11:17 am |
    • laststonecarver

      @D U,
      here's how one person changes his environment –

      April 19, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Is that the best "proof" that you have for a god? Explain how that works.

      April 19, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  13. Jmac

    Lets see: believe in god-go to heaven....do not believe in god-go to hell. I cannot believe that some are still living their lives according to this belief. How about just being a honest and compassionate human being, love all life and do no harm. Seems you wouldn't have to worry about where you go if you live by that credo.

    April 18, 2013 at 7:46 pm |
    • bigjed

      "How about just being a honest and compassionate human being, love all life and do no harm"
      That's what Jesus preached.
      You are half way to believing in God and going to heaven.
      Keep up the good work.

      April 18, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
  14. Tony

    why is atheism being covered in the "belief" blog?

    April 18, 2013 at 7:32 pm |
  15. Kenfolk

    Why do people conflate belief in a Creator with belief in the Bible? Many of the founding fathers of this country believed in a Creator but based on reason, nature, and experience, not the Bible. Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and many others were neither Christian nor atheist. They were proud Deists as described in Paine's classic "Age of Reason".

    April 18, 2013 at 4:59 pm |
  16. Ruby

    I have tried to believe but being somewhat smart I can not wrap my head around believe in a god that I cannot see or any evidence of his existence except for a motel bible.

    April 18, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
  17. wj

    The story of the great Flood of Noah, God's judgment on the ancient world, is found in many cultures in various stories. Just because of that doesn't make it a myth. Noah's sons just passed the retelling of the actual event down to their children, and as the world became repopulated, the stories of the past were retained in each culture. So believe the Bible, because it is the original true story!!

    April 18, 2013 at 11:41 am |
    • Billy


      April 18, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
    • Luggage1974

      "The story of the great Flood of Noah, God's judgment on the ancient world, is found in many cultures in various stories. Just because of that doesn't make it a myth. Noah's sons just passed the retelling of the actual event down to their children, and as the world became repopulated, the stories of the past were retained in each culture. So believe the Bible, because it is the original true story!!"

      Why is it then that several other cultures that predate "The Great Flood" story have no records of such an event? Because it was not a world wide flood wiping out all but Noah and his kids. It flys in the face of all known evidence we have to suggest otherwise. The Bible is a collection of stories from one small portion of the world and most of those stories come from years before the bible was put together by the pagan ruler Constantine. I mean Christmas was taken from the pagen winter solstace festival. These things are only disputed by those who are willfully ingnorant to history and facts as they directly fly in the face of fairy tales found in the bible.

      April 18, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
    • Gutsy333


      April 18, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
    • Gutsy333

      Well collective paranoia is easy to spread or impose in critical times when humans feel out of control, like when hurricanes or earthquakes, or droughts hit our world. People panic when they feel at the mercy of nature. /So your noha was an opportunist; he realized, I think, that he himself did not have real solutions, so he spread fantasies that made him all powerful. Unfortunately, his tactic was enforcing guilt, low self esteem, punishment and threats on the ignorant masses. 🙁

      April 18, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
  18. just_a_moderate

    You have got to be kidding. What hate and bigotry are you accusing the atheists of?

    Do you seriously believe that their disdain for Christianity is at a higher level than the average Christian's disdain for Islam or any other faith?

    Short of the agnostics or a few of the reasonable eastern beliefs, everyone else believes that everyone else is wrong. I really don't see how you're saying that there is an increased level of anything with the atheists versus (insert religion here).

    April 18, 2013 at 10:00 am |
  19. Financial atheism

    Atheism in general had a profound, and probably unintended effect on me. My god was money. I now see it for what it is, something that man invented, something that man uses to control and manipulate eachother, something that has no real value outside of what the mind of a human places on it.

    Unfortunately, I can't find any way around society still using it.

    April 18, 2013 at 6:20 am |
    • Phil

      Money has nothing to do with atheism, plus what does it say on it, "In God We Trust."

      Money only represents work that you perform to use as trade for other things, so you really can't call it a God.

      April 18, 2013 at 8:40 am |
    • Financial atheism

      Face it, money IS GOD here, and we all bow down to it. The God we trust in IS the money itself and we ALL bow down to it, we all serve it to the last of our dignity and with all that we have.

      April 18, 2013 at 10:24 am |
    • Phil

      No only those who don't have strength in character bow down to money, it's called greed. Money doesn't buy you happiness only a fool believes that which is why not everyone is as cynical as you.

      April 18, 2013 at 10:53 am |
  20. the AnViL™

    those who believe in an imaginary man in the sky are delusional, and no one wants delusional people dictating their retarded morality onto the rest of society, except other mentally ill people.

    maybe it's time for people to rise up and crush the skulls of the mentally ill people who propagate these hysterical religious ideologies?

    there is no doubt that monotheism is the true force of darkness on this planet – and it needs to be utterly destroyed in any and all forms.

    tolerance of religious idiocy, bigotry, ignorance, and stupidity has to end – and it's possible that the only way that can happen is with violence. it may be the only solution.

    for the good of humanity – maybe it's time to raze the vatican – and burn all the churches?

    maybe it's time to re-educate the citizenry to reject religious foolishness – to prevent the atrocities humanity has been dealt at the hands of ignorant, divisive, malevolent, monotheistic idiocy.

    ending islam and xianity by forcing them underground into the dark recesses of the planet has to happen... future generations will thank us.

    enough is enough

    April 18, 2013 at 2:14 am |
    • biggles

      Report every post filled with hate-speech for Christians.

      April 18, 2013 at 3:24 am |
    • laststonecarver

      you need dorothy's approval to do anything. if she says hitler was a lovely christian fellow, then he was a lovely christian man. do not dispute her unless you want to suffer the consequences. dorothy is not to be crossed
      April 14, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse | Reply

      April 18, 2013 at 8:25 am |
    • laststonecarver

      in your words, biggles
      We'd love to see the new study that shows the god-hating demons r happier than anybody, Dorothy, unless you or yours conducted the fraud.
      Atheists on this forum are not smart, either. Jesus shed his blood for korn Welch to save him from the world, the flesh and the devil. [and little fvck sambo] lol
      April 15, 2013 at 11:01 pm | Report abuse | Reply

      April 18, 2013 at 9:58 am |
    • laststonecarver

      @are you remembering yet biggles,
      per Gadarenian
      As I did walk by Hampstead Fair
      I came upon Mother Goose
      So I turned her loose
      She was screaming.
      hold up. hold up.
      no gods? what about archyadillo or whatever her name b. u no. the scholar dudess knod it all? and sledge hammer or anvilhead whoever that b? ain't u god?
      February 21, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse | Reply

      April 18, 2013 at 10:27 am |
    • laststonecarver

      @another whole site to Report, biggles,and you still have to watch the other one –
      per bethany
      The universe popped out of nowhere and billions of years later, walking talking super computers did too. Happens all the time. Just random events. Just last week three universes stopped by to say hello. You have a devastating sense of humor. That proves there cannot be a gods. u win. I believe in your in gods now.Thanks babe. Your secret luver
      BTW, try harder to insult gods. Your material is getting worn out a bit. BLAh LOL
      March 8, 2013 at 6:25 am | Report abuse | Reply
      per Mary in Texas
      i love divine insight, she's hot. bluethread is the serpent. morphine could lose a few pounds. scourge99 is a bit opinionated and believes there is evidence god doesn't exist. danmark is a big hit. well respected by demons, imps and devils.
      you know how you can tell when d.i. is posting, no mater what fake name she uses? her sermons are at least 55,000 words or more and she says the exact same things every time she preaches. she asks questions for herself and her cult that always insult the sky-daddy god she hates. (i wish she didn't have a crush on screwtape and ottsting. she's my type.)
      February 21, 2013 at 8:31 pm | Report abuse | Reply

      April 18, 2013 at 10:34 am |
    • laststonecarver

      I believe in dodo and in pretending to be smart cause as a first grader they put me in a special class for the criminally insane, but told me I was a genius.
      April 19, 2013 at 4:10 am | Report abuse |

      April 19, 2013 at 8:04 am |
    • laststonecarver

      per Gadarenian
      my name is Gadarenian which means no one can come close to my genius
      February 20, 2013 at 11:26 pm | Report abuse | Reply

      April 19, 2013 at 8:30 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.