N.C. philanthropist uses funds to support atheist, secular causes

RALEIGH — When GlaxoSmithKline bought Todd Stiefel'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 of 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.

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.)

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