Millionaire atheist Todd Stiefel is on a godless mission — literally. The businessman-turned full-time atheist activist is devoting his life to the dissemination of freethought and to the righting of what he sees as discriminatory wrongs against members of the atheist, agnostic and freethinking community.
The Blaze recently interviewed the multimillionaire to gain perspective on his work and to better understand his role in the growth and increasing organization of the secularist movement.
Stiefel, who has given millions toward atheist causes and who considers himself to be Republican-leaning, is a “George Soros” of sorts for the secular community. In addition to allocating funds for numerous freethinking organizations, the Reason Rally and the Rock Beyond Belief, Stiefel is serving on advisory boards and providing non-fiscal advice to movement leaders. Through The Stiefel Freethought Foundation (SFF), the 37-year-old businessman is serving as an atheist philanthropist extraordinaire (he’s devoted $3.5 million to related causes).
SFF gave $250,000 toward the Reason Rally (which The Blaze covered extensively) and another $70,000 toward Rock Beyond Belief (read about this latter event here). Plainly stated: He’s a key player, asset and organizer for the atheist cause. During a 90-minute interview with The Blaze, Stiefel shared a plethora of information and perspective. While many would potentially dismiss him as offensive or irreverent like many of the other leaders in the atheist movement, Stiefel takes a different, more respectful approach.
Using Less-Abrasive Tactics
When asked about his tactics and why they aren’t as biting as those adopted by scientist Richard Dawkins and Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, among others, Stiefel answered the question respectfully.
“I think it is a different approach,” he said regarding his own handling of atheist issues. “I think all approaches are important. It’s useful to have a lot of different voices and a lot of people saying different things.”
While this may certainly be true, Stiefel’s tact and stature add something a bit more refined to the freethinking cause (this has also been highlighted in past reports about his work). Rather than attacking people for their faith, the activist said his focus is “trying to get people to be a little more skeptical and less of literalists and not attacking faith in general.”
“There’s some who focus more on the critique of religion and there’s others who focus on other aspects of the movement,” Stiefel continued. “I try to focus more on the importance of defending the Constitution and separation of church and state — and ending discrimination against freethinkers.”
Despite his respectful tone, Stiefel has plenty of criticisms for religion. In particular he railed against teaching children intolerance and encouraging them, in the name of Christianity, “to despise homosexuals.” Additionally, he said that telling kids that they will burn in hell for all eternity is “scary” and that it is an unpleasant portion of the religious experience.
“You want to give a kid nightmares, tell them they’re going to burn over an infinite level of years,” he said.
But despite these statements, throughout our interview, Stiefel emphasized the difference he sees between targeting religion and hammering its adherents.
“There’s an enormous difference between criticizing religion and religious people.”
Stiefel’s Road to Atheist Activism & His Mission
The atheist leader, who resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, graduated cum laude from Duke University. He then worked for 12 years for Stiefel Laboratories (his family’s skin care company that was sold to GlaxoSmithKline for $2.9 billion in 2009).
Following the many roles he filled at the company, the young man decided — like other businessmen — to devote his life to worthy causes. Considering his passion for the atheist community, he has found himself serving as a pivotal individual in the movement. But Stiefel wasn’t always a non-believer.
“I was very religious at various points…especially in high school. The final nail in the coffin when I stopped believing forever was a course at Duke University on Old Testament history,” he explained. “Nothing like learning the Bible and the history of the Bible to get a person to stop believing [in it].”
Stiefel expounded upon the fact that actually reading and studying the Bible caused him to inevitably reject it.
“Most atheists…we tend to be more religiously literate than believers. Part of the reason we are non-believers is we have read the Bible. Large portions of it,” he said later in the interview. “I think the Bible is a fascinating grouping of books. I think it has wonderful lessons in it…beautiful stories…[but] I think it does have a lot of things that are atrocious.”
Among the allegedly atrocious elements are verses that purportedly frame slavery and genocide in a positive light and others that tout “abhorrent” ideas about women. Despite his Biblical hesitations, Stiefel says he reads the Holy book to his two children, because he wants them “to learn.”
Unlike other atheists, he’s not as interested in trying to convince Christians that their personal faith views are incorrect.
“I would love religion to become more moderate. It’s fine to me if someone wants to be a person of faith. That’s their business, their right, their choice,” he said. “I don’t even really care about persuading them away from their own faith. That’s not my job. But I do want them to question and be a bit skeptical about some of the aspects of their faith because you can get yourself in a lot of trouble if you take a book like the Koran or the Bible to be literally true.”
Some of the Bible’s messaging, he explained, was at the heart of his decision to stop believing. This decision, of course, has grown into something much more powerful, as the millionaire uses his personal wealth to help build up freethinking groups. For Stiefel, his work is aimed at stopping what he sees as discrimination against non-believers.
“The reason I got active is because I was witnessing intolerance and hatred [against atheists],” he said. “It was [the assumption] that we were immoral that was of concern to me and also seeing the damage that fundamentalist religion was having on the world. Including 9/11. Including abortion doctors being killed.”
Stiefel said that his other motivations were rooted in the fact that some religious people were attempting to legislate their believers “over more universal values.” It is this notion — that a group would push its personal religious beliefs on the overall population — that Stiefel found concerning.
“That is where we start seeing our country’s Constitution being eroded and our freedoms being eroded,” he proclaimed. “That’s why I got active – to eliminate that discrimination and to help the world be less fundamentalist and to help religion be more oriented towards love…”
The atheist bakroller says he’s looking to help — even “save” the world.
“I want to fight for love, freedom, integrity and reason…I see this as a civil equality movement in a very similar vein to other movements of the past,” he said, referring to atheists’ fight against the discrimination they claim to regularly face. “Ours has been going on for centuries and we’ve made great progress – at least in this country we aren’t burned to the stake or stoned to death anymore. But we are stoned to death in other countries – regularly. It’s not wise to be a public freethinker in the Islamic world right now. It’s a good way to be killed.”
Stiefel’s Support for Reason Rally
Considering his support for Reason Rally, though, and its rabid poor language and negative content, I asked Stiefel about his thoughts on some of the event’s controversial elements. In particular, I inquired as to whether he had a problem providing funds for something that included vulgar language and negativity (as you’ll recall, The Blaze brought you exclusive video of one Reason Rally performer’s song, which included the F-word more than 75 times).
“I don’t agree with everything everyone says…but we’re all different. And there’s many different individuals and voices,” he said. “And some resonate with some people and some with others…there’s some more sensationalist atheist activists and firebrands – just like there is in Christianity. And there’s others that take a more mainstream…approach.”
Considering the general nature of this response, I pushed Stiefel a bit harder on the issue, citing specific examples of problematic issues at the event.
“There were some things said at the rally that I disagreed with – sure,” he said. “My kids were at the event and there were points where their ears were covered. Because of the language – not because of the things that were said…some of the language probably should have been better for nighttime.”
But when it comes to censoring the content, Stiefel explained that he would never advocate such a thing.
“I think people need to understand this very specific point. Ideas are not sacred. They don’t need to be respected. People need to be respected. So we do criticize ideas…[and] institutions, including religious institutions,” the freethinking leader said. “Those are not critiques on religious people. And we believe extremely strongly that all ideas need to be open to question and we need to learn from history and mistakes and grow and improve.”
Stiefel said he plans to continue criticizing religion and educating people about the “moral” and “factual” “flaws in the Bible.”
Being “Good Without God”
Through billboards and online messaging, atheists are regularly claiming that it’s more than possible to be “good without God.” Religious people generally argue that faith provides a blueprint for what is “good” and that without it non-believers are floating in a sea of moral uncertainty. Stiefel made it clear that he finds such a notion monumentally offensive.
“When someone asks me that question [How can you be good without God?], the question is so loaded it’s the same as asking, ‘How could you be good with black skin?’ ‘How can you be good as a Jew?’…let’s just turn it around specifically – ‘How can you be a good person and a Christian?,’ he said. “How does it feel being asked that question? That’s how it feels to be an atheist.”
Stiefel admitted that it’s emotionally painful when people question his goodness based on his decision not to embrace Jesus Christ (or any other concept of God, for that matter). He reiterated his point by saying that people should be judged by actions, not beliefs. This question about being good without God’s assistance, too, has motivated his activism.
“It hurts, because it’s questioning the most human part of the individual – they’re morality,” he said. “And it’s taking the assumption that someone is immoral without even knowing the person. If you’re going to judge someone it should be based in their actions.”
Ironically, Stiefel went on to talk about the decisions human beings are faced with on a daily basis — choices rooted on whether they wish to act positively or negatively. In Christian circles, this is referred to as “free will.” That’s one area the divergent sides — the faithful and the atheists — can agree on.
“We’re all built in with a capability of morality and all of us are capable of…good or evil behavior,” he continued. “We’re making choices on a day to day basis on how to live [our lives]. We simply have to choose to be good…”
And here’s a bombshell: Stiefel’s wife is a Christian who sometimes still attends Protestant churches. Despite their very clear faith differences (not to mention Stiefel’s fervent activism for freethought equality), the couple make it work due to their shared values.
“Here’s something you should know…there’s many of us – atheists, humanists and agnostics – that are married to religious people,” he explained. “It’s not a matter of your religious beliefs…it’s a matter of your values and how you treat each other.”
Atheism, the GOP & Small Government
Stiefel’s political background will be somewhat of a surprise to some, as he has traditionally aligned himself with the GOP.
“I’m technically an independent at the moment…I was a Republican my whole life before I moved to North Carolina,” Stiefel said. “My family is, for the most part, Republican.”
When he began looking into the state’s GOP party platform, he realized he had big issues with it — particularly its treatment of homosexuality.
“I couldn’t believe how much essentially gay-bashing was going on in the official North Carolina platform,” he explained, going on to say that he leans libertarian (but he lamented libertarians’ tendency to “stick to their philosophy at the extend of realism”). “I couldn’t feel morally that I could register as a Republican in this state.”
Stiefel says that he wants the Republican Party he knows and loves back and that he “can’t stand” what has happened to the GOP. He called this alleged political transformation disastrous for both the party and the nation.
“The main issue is the party is catering too much to religious ultra-conservatives and that is a base that has been intentionally targeted and mobilized and so you can win elections through mobilizing your base to actually vote,” he explained, going on to also highlight the fact that Republicans need Independents too — a group he believes they simply can’t capture with this strategy.
According to Stiefel, there are atheists from various political viewpoints. This, of course, would defy the notion that most non-believers tend to be liberal (this latter fact is true, but Stiefel was attempting to make it known that there are others under the secularist umbrella who embrace different political ideals).
“We tend to be very much freedom oriented. We tend to want the government out of our lives as much as possible,” he explained. “I like small government. I’m a big fan of it. I don’t like the government overstepping its bounds. The government needs to step out of promoting religion or promoting lack of religion.”
It was at this point — later in our discussion — that Stiefel took aim at the Republican Party’s support for the White House’s faith-based initiatives.
“The faith-based initiative is pouring literally billions of dollars into what are essentially entitlement programs — social service programs with minimum requirements, minimum accountability,” he said, going on to call this a form of “pork” and an example of big government. ”Do we want the government choosing which churches get enormous amounts of government money to distribute with minimal supervision? I would contend, ‘No.’ This is exactly the opposite of what Republicans should be supporting.”
A Fearless Defender?
In the end, it became clear that Stiefel’s work is centered upon creating a favorable image for atheists in America. Discrimination was a common theme he mentioned, as he positioned himself as an individual prepared and willing to tackle anti-secularist sentiment head-on.
“There’s some atheists who have been really hurt – really, really harmed. And they’ve been damaged psychologically and they might be anger about it,” he claimed. “There’s children who have been thrown out of their homes and stripped of all their possessions and college tuition just because their parents found out they don’t believe in the same religion as them.”
Stiefel is clearly a defender of the atheist cause, but he’s also a different voice — a less shrill, though still anti-religious individual — in the movement. However, his message is even more important to understand because of the widespread financial support he’s offering. In the end, money is power and his sentiments will likely help shape the atheist movement as it unfolds and grows.
“Christians and atheists have vastly more in common with their values than they realize…The audience of The Blaze probably has the vast majority of their values in line with what most atheists believe,” he said. “We believe in love. We believe in freedom. We believe in truth. We believe in integrity and living moral, ethical lives…in creating happiness and decreasing suffering.”