How this millionaire activist is making atheism the next civil rights issue

Nearly one in five Americans now identify themselves as being religiously unaffiliated — a figure that’s been on the rise for the past two decades. But as atheists and non-religious folk increasingly step out of the closet, many still feel marginalized — and even a bit threatened — by a larger religious society wary of their growing presence. The required next step, says Todd Stiefel, is to make atheism a civil rights issue. And he’s putting his money where his mouth is.

To date, Stiefel, a 38-year-old former Catholic from Raleigh, North Carolina, has poured $3.5 million of his own dollars into various atheist organizations, including American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, the Secular Coalition for America, and many others. If you’ve seen those flashy atheist billboards, or news clips encouraging atheists to step up, then you’ve probably seen his money at work.

Dan Merica from CNN recently spoke to Stiefel, at which time he made his goals very clear.

“What I am trying to accomplish is multifold,” he told Merica. “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.”

To that end, he founded the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, an institute that funds atheist rallies (like the Reason Rally) and helps clergy members who are in doubt leave the church (via the Clergy Project).

Stiefel, who made his millions after the family business was sold to GlaxoSmithKline, decided to use his money to advocate for atheism, what he saw as the “most productive way to help humanity.”

Merica writes:

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.

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.”

To his credit, Stiefel has helped atheist groups raise money for other causes, including two huge donations to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society last year. And interestingly, he’s working to bridge 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.”

Read Dan Merica’s entire article at CNN.

Here's the speech that Stiefel gave at the Reason Rally last year:

Image courtesy Bruce Press Photography via CNN.