RALEIGH — When GlaxoSmithKline bought ToddStiefel's family business for $2.9 billion last April, he began to think about what to do with the rest of his life.
A Duke University graduate, Stiefel wanted his windfall to better society. Like many modern philanthropists, such as Bill and Melinda Gates or Warren Buffett, Stiefel is not motivated by religious zeal. In fact, Stiefel has become one of the country's biggest benefactors of atheist causes.
Last month, Stiefel gave $500,000 to the Secular Coalition for America, a Washington-based coalition that lobbies on behalf of 10 groups of atheists, humanists and agnostics. That's on top of two smaller gifts to two of the coalition's members: a $100,000 matching grant to American Atheists and a $50,000 matching grant to the Secular Student Alliance.
"Not a lot of people are fortunate to have the opportunity to do what I'm doing," said Stiefel, 35. "I didn't want to let that slide."
The gifts from Stiefel, who moved to Raleigh in August, are the largest the Secular Coalition has had. They will allow the organization to step up its lobbying in Washington and to create grass-roots advocacy organizations in every state.
"It's supercharged our ability to move forward," said Sean Faircloth, executive director of the coalition.
Stiefel's generosity is not limited to atheists. Last week, he donated $20,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi so it could sponsor a high school prom after the Itawamba County School District canceled the dance rather than allow a lesbian to bring her girlfriend as a date.
Noticed in high places
Stiefel wants to create a culture in the United States in which secularists - be they atheists, agnostics or humanists - are respected. He is well acquainted with the polls. According to recent Gallup surveys, not only conservatives disdain atheists, but 33 percent of self-described liberals would not vote for an atheist running for president. On nearly every ranking of religious groups, only Scientologists are viewed by Americans less favorably than atheists. (Only 7 percent viewed Scientologists favorably, compared to 13 percent who viewed atheists positively, according to a 2008 Gallup poll.)
That leaves Stiefel with plenty to do.
On Feb. 26, Stiefel and about 60 others from the Secular Coalition for America sat down for a 90-minute meeting with White House administration officials.
Three concerns dominated the agenda. The coalition wants the government to be able to remove sick children from homes in which parents believe in faith healing; it wants the Defense Department to give protected class status to nonbelievers serving in the military, as it does to members of minority faiths; it wants to see an end to taxpayer funding for faith-based initiatives.
No deals were made at the meeting, but the very fact that the group got a White House hearing is significant. It was the first time any administration has met with nonbelievers.
Part of the reason may be that people such as Stiefel are now joining the ranks.
A freethinker's path
"The face of atheism in this country is beginning to change," said Mark Zumbach of Cary, president of the Triangle Freethought Society. "It used to be fringe people. Now it's people who are a little bit more normal."
Stiefel was born in Albany, N.Y., and grew up in the Catskill Mountains. His father, Charles, was CEO of Stiefel Laboratories, which had a manufacturing plant there.
The company was founded by Stiefel's great-great-grandfather in 1847, near Frankfurt, Germany. It originally made medicated soaps but then specialized in skin care products for a range of conditions such as acne, psoriasis and eczema.
When Stiefel was 7, the family moved to Florida to be closer to the company's headquarters in Coral Gables. The family was Roman Catholic but attended church irregularly. Stiefel's parents nonetheless sent him to Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, an all-male Catholic school run by the Marist order.
Stiefel said he vacillated between belief and nonbelief. But it was a class he took in Old Testament History while an undergraduate at Duke University that dealt the final blow. Realizing that the Hebrew Bible mentioned other gods, and that some stories bore a similarity to earlier faiths, confirmed to him that religion was a human construction.
"I no longer found a basis for belief in the God of the Bible," he said.
Stiefel said his nonbelief was never an issue with his parents, who accepted him for who he was and happily worked with him in various company posts after graduating from Duke.
Neither was it an issue with Diana, a woman he met in an Atlanta pool hall and married in 2001. She still considers herself a Christian and occasionally attends church.
"We both believe in family, fairness and honesty and have a strong sense of right and wrong," said Stiefel. "Our values are very much aligned."
As he accumulated marketing, sales and strategy experience, he focused on his job and growing family. The Stiefels have a son, Cole, 6, and a daughter, Amber, 5. As his business card states, Stiefel is now a full-time "freethought activist."
A diplomatic touch
Since moving to Raleigh - he and his parents live in the same gated community - Stiefel has made it his mission to raise the profile of atheists and lower the volume of hostility directed at them. He acknowledges that some atheists have been outspoken, perhaps even intemperate, and he says he'd like to lend them a softer, more diplomatic image.
"For me, a huge benefit is that he offers nuts-and-bolts strategic advice to me and the organization," said Sean Faircloth, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America. "He looks at the big picture and asks, 'What are the practical steps to achieving our goals?'"
With Stiefel's gift, the organization, which employs five full-time staff members, has been able to hire an office manager and increase its level of professionalism, Faircloth said.
His contributions have also allowed him a seat on the coalition's board of advisers, which includes nonbeliever celebrities such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Salman Rushdie and Julia Sweeney.
But more than anything, Stiefel is interested in dispelling the notion that atheists don't believe in anything and are therefore capable of anything.
"We're equally capable of being ethical as people who are religious," he said. "We just want to be good for goodness' sake."
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