Developing a Cognitive Technology for Religious Tolerance: Case Studies Documentation – by Deborah Levine


This paper explains creative approaches to religious diversity and tolerance based on the cultural anthropology theories of Claude Lévi-Strauss. My research was conducted through case studies beginning with a 1990 pilot project in a globalization context, Chicago’s suburban technical corridor. This first case study, the DuPage Interfaith Resource Network (DIRN), pioneered strategies for managing religious conflicts due to changing demographics.

DIRN developed religious literacy strategies and administrative policies within the public schools, a major conflict arena, and were adopted by community service organizations including law enforcement, healthcare, and nonprofit NGOs. The strategies were coupled with programs based on storytelling for greater impact.

The second case study took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, following the domestic terrorism of the Oklahoma City bombing. In this phase, Oklahoma’s Say No to Hate Coalition adapted the ground work of DIRN to an environment that included active hate groups.

The third case study was generated by the Women’s Council on Diversity in Chattanooga, Tennessee. A combined story-based communication, emotional intelligence, and problem solving system evolved and was field tested in leadership workshops. The resulting Matrix Model Management System emerged through my cross-cultural communication textbook and workbook.

Chattanooga’s final research phase was prompted by a domestic terrorism incident. The System became a cognitive technology built on the platform of combined coalition strategies and religious literacy. The emphasis underscored problem solving and the unconscious bias involved in decision making. The cognitive technology is codified in my Un-Bias Guide Series which has a broad applicability for corporations, NGOs, education institutions, and government agencies.


“Religious diversity is emerging as the hot topic of our times. Every day, the news is filled with stories of war, violence, rape, torture, and unspeakable crimes in the name of religion. In our globalized world, diverse religions can be the most divisive forces on the face of the planet. We live with the fear of being overcome by religion-based conflicts and strife. Yet religion and faith also have the power to inspire, instruct, and encourage creativity to overcome frustrating and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The challenge is to find ways to weave diverse religions into a constructive source of inspiration, altruism, leadership, and team strength. The adage of not discussing politics or religion goes back to the mid-1800s, if not further. The silence was intended to avoid contentious and divisive arguments at the dinner table, in public, and in the workplace. In the diverse religious culture of America today, silence is increasingly impractical as a goal.”¹

Case Study I

Following the1990 National Conference on Christian-Jewish Relations in Chicago, the DuPage Interfaith Resource Network (DIRN) was conceived as a broader, multi-faith local coalition that could be a replicable pilot project for communities across the US. DIRN was created as an experiment and pilot project for managing religious differences and creating an environment of tolerance. The DuPage County region was chosen for this experiment because it was a prime example of globalization as it became Chicago’s suburban technology corridor. An influx of international companies with their headquarters and manufacturing plants meant the relocation of executives and employees from around the globe into the county. They brought their native cultures with them, many of which were inextricably entwined with diverse religions that had not been previously represented among the residents.

The changing demographics had resulted in a series of culture clashes around the Christmas holiday as presented in public spaces: village squares, libraries, and, in particular, public schools. By the time a local street riot was reported on the front page of The Chicago Tribune, DIRN was already in formation as the most effective way to deal with the growing biases and conflicts.

Three initiatives emerged from DIRN that would establish the ground rules for coalition building: knowledge management, policies, and programs. Ultimately, these basic building blocks would serve as the basis for a cognitive technology that could be adapted not only for community use, but also for the workplace. These initiatives were prompted by a survey of school administrators in the region and ongoing discussions among religious and civic leaders. They resulted in the development of 1) Structured coalition, 2) Religious literacy training, 2.) Policy guidelines, and 3.) Exposure programs.

Structured Coalition

The organization of a multi-faith coalition requires planning and leadership if it is going to effectively model tolerance and be replicable and sustainable. One of the most challenging elements of creating this coalition was determining eligibility for membership. With no pre-existing coalition, membership requirements had to be outlined by an appointed executive committee. Determining our definition of what we would consider to be a legitimate religion was a challenge not to be underestimated. Individuals who wanted to join came not only from religious backgrounds but also from spiritual associations, wiccan groups, and organizations that some members considered as cults.

To make the by-laws uniform and acceptable to the executive committee, membership was given to religious organizations rather than individuals with an emphasis on including diverse ethnic, national, and racial cultural groups. Further, religious groups were required to have a standing facility, designate an official representative educated in its religious and cultural traditions, and be registered with the federal government as a not-for-profit organization. The by-laws were written down in the DIRN newsletter which was computer generated but produced in a hand-out format. These requirements didn’t rule out exceptions made by common consent, but they did provide a recorded road map for moving forward. This ensured that membership would not be a constant source of conflict and also enable DIRN to register with the government as a not-for-profit organization.

Religious Literacy

A major step taken by DIRN was to address the lack of information by key front-line players: classroom teachers, medical personnel, and law enforcement officers. Misunderstandings were often the cause of conflicts rather than intentional efforts to exclude or punish individuals of diverse religious backgrounds. Some of the misunderstandings stemmed from unfamiliarity with religious calendars and how to schedule around diverse holy days. Others involved food and were a result of ignorance of dietary laws. In addition, there was a considerable gap in understanding religious traditions surrounding life cycle events, particularly death and dying.

Lack of education about world religions has been reinforced by legal limitations on the study of religion in public schools. Therefore, many in the community were trained only in the religion with which they and their families were affiliated. Their religious perspectives already formed, these adults were best served by information that was quickly and easily accessible. DIRN created Quick Reference Religious Diversity Cards that were based on a corporate training model. These Cards proved to have sustainability in their application. They have been revised over the years and continue to be used for reference and training in multiple environments today.

Policy Guidelines

While those dealing directly with students, patients, and community members benefitted from the Quick Reference Religious Diversity Cards, the institutions that they represented needed to reflect the diversity of religions in their policies. Policies determine actions when interpersonal discussions and negotiations fail to do so. Organizational policies provide guidance that can prevent conflicts from intensifying into the legal system where lawyers and courts determine the outcome. Yet, many of the institutions that DIRN worked with had no written policy regarding religious expression. The void made them vulnerable to a variety of misunderstandings, awkward requests, resentments, and threats of legal suits. This was especially true for public schools.

To rectify the situation in the schools, DIRN worked with the district administrators to create a written policy that would reflect the emerging needs of the increasingly diverse community. Given that policies cannot contradict laws already in place, it was necessary to involve lawyers in the creation of a template for public school district policies. DIRN gathered religious, education, and civic leaders for a community conference with lawyers familiar with the legal parameters of public expression of religion to brainstorm what policies would be appropriate. Shaping the input into policies in this manner allowed for public input and eventual buy-in to the results. The guidelines that were created through this process are available in my book, Religious Diversity in our Schools.

Exposure events

One of the earliest events created by DIRN was a multi faith performance of sacred music. The event was planned around the national holiday of Thanksgiving which was a celebration that could be inclusive. While there is controversy over some historical aspects of the holiday, giving thanks is a universal religious mandate. The multi faith Thanksgiving event featured multiple religious traditions, each expressing gratitude through song, instrumental music, or chanted prayers. Music provides a window into another culture and belief system like no other, as Claude Levi-Strauss explains:

“Music is a language by whose means messages are elaborated, that such messages can be understood by the many but sent out only by few, and that it alone among all the languages unites the contradictory character of being at once intelligible and untranslatable – these facts make the creator of music a being like the gods.”²

A second strategy for public familiarity was storytelling. A series of story-telling panels was held at various venues where members of different faiths could tell stories about observing their traditions in their homes at places of worship. Libraries, colleges, and schools were hosts to these panels. One of the vital elements of both the multi faith Thanksgiving and the storytelling panels was the participation of the women DIRN members in organizing the event. While they may not have been on stage, their behind-the-scenes expertise was vital to its success. Their dedication and experience in setting up the venues, managing the different players, and providing support whether in the form of food and publicity, meant that women of diverse faiths worked together as a disciplined team.

While their leadership was often not visible, their exposure led to a growing desire to take a more active role in DIRN. Therefore, DIRN created a sub-group specifically for these women, taking advantage of their ability to collaborate by providing leadership training. Empowering women in this manner became a consistent element in creating a self-sustaining model that helped develop and deploy the cognitive technology.

From its beginnings, DIRN provided written records of its work for future use by new members or other communities. Many of these stories were recorded in a newsletter for classroom use. The newsletter was created online through early computer programs. So successful was this approach that I have maintained this strategy over the years, adapting to new technology, through the online American Diversity Report.

Case Study II

The Oklahoma case study added two emerging issues that would need to be folded into the development of a religious tolerance cognitive technology. The first issue was the intensification of home-grown hate that had previously been below the surface of social interaction. In 1995, Oklahoma was the site of the largest incident of domestic terrorism in American history. The Oklahoma City Bombing was perpetrated by a few lone individuals, but multiple hate groups were present to provide support. White Supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and anti-government paramilitary groups had established small well-armed communities. They actively recruited disillusioned youth and trained them to use their stock-piled guns.

The situation presented major challenges for religious institutions and the multi-faith Say No To Hate Coalition. Headed by an executive committee of women of diverse faiths and cultures, the Coalition’s pursuit of religious tolerance needed to include both defensive measures and new communication strategies. The defense training was provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Much of the training consisted of information about hate groups in the area and their activities. In addition, the FBI training focused on protecting facilities with an emphasis on recognizing suspicious letters and packages.

While school and university discussion groups were a regular feature of the Coalition’s communication plans, the more violent environment required a stronger voice.

The second issue involved the media. The local newspaper had been the preferred avenue for promoting unity in the face of hate and hate crimes. However, an increasingly user-friendly cyberspace was changing our local focus. Hate groups had begun using e-mails to spread their message. While their use of the internet was still in its infancy, their activities gained the attention of similar groups around the world and, in a new twist on globalization, attracted a few celebrities in these movements to come to Oklahoma in person. One of the most noteworthy of them was the international Holocaust denier, David Irving.

Irving’s presence in Tulsa, combined with the increased visibility of neo-Nazi groups in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing and the release of the movie, Schindler’s List, brought national media to this small city. Requests for comments came from television and radio programs across the country. The growing number of television requests required us to employ an approach designed for a brief interview format. That approach included storytelling training for the Holocaust Survivors who had never told their stories to even their closest relatives. Prompted by the realization that their silence had become a liability in the internet age, the Survivors now wanted to have a public voice.

Case Study III

The religion and tolerance model created in Chattanooga, Tennessee, echoed the combined elements of the previous case studies: globalization, an internet culture, and terrorism that reflected international influences. It was during the Chattanooga pilot project, that the cognitive technology was finalized, field tested, and refined. Given that the process extended over almost two decades, this paper will divide the Chattanooga case study into three distinct phases: 1.) creating a cultural diversity platform, 2.) creating a global mindset 3.) creating a cognitive technology

Phase #1: Creating a cultural diversity platform

In order to develop the human platform that would allow experimentation with cultural diversity, the Women’s Council on Diversity was launched during the emotional time following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Following the principles of the DIRN model, the participation of diverse religious institutions as well as ethnic and racial civic organizations was key to establishing the Council’s brand. Success in achieving the multi-faith engagement was in part due to the backing of Chattanooga’s Community Foundation. In addition to providing official non-profit status to the Council and accepting donations on its behalf, the Foundation elevated both the visibility and credibility of the Council. Further, the backing of the city’s mayor who helped establish the Council’s credentials not only in the Chattanooga, but throughout the region. The nonprofit, government, civic, and religious engagement proved to be a powerful combination for promoting tolerance in the community.

A major difference from the DIRN formation was the early emphasis on women in its executive committee. Given the demonstrated efficacy of having women collaborate, design and organize programs in DIRN and in Tulsa’s Say No to Hate executive committee, this multi faith/cultural coalition began its work as a women-driven, city-wide initiative. Many of the women on the Council’s executive committee led the day-to-day workings of their institutions but were unfamiliar with public speaking. In order to implement the storytelling strategies proven successful in the DIRN case study, training was a necessary component of the Council’s planning. Worksheets that would expedite the training were created, resulting in written stories so compelling that a newsletter was created to share them with the public.

The stories were also practiced as oral presentations. This storytelling methodology was related to the oral-formulaic theory of composition taught by Dr. Albert Lord, author of The Singer of Tales and the founder of the Folklore and Mythology major at Harvard University. We combined Lord’s theories of how oral traditions employ rhythmic formulas and repetitive themes and how the non-traditional storytellers emphasize innovation and individuality. The resulting stories echoed common themes of family, community, and faith while reflecting personal experiences.

The training process translated into storytelling performances that were free and open to the public. The platform consisted of monthly panels that emphasized diverse cultural and sacred traditions. The impact of the personal stories, the accompanying newsletter, and continual coverage in local media created an ongoing dialogue that had not previously existed. The programs continued for several years and eventually became an annual storytelling series of events in March, the month designated as Women’s History Month.

We created YouTube to create Women GroundBreaker Videos of the storytellers in order to reach a national audience. Eventually, the Council became part of the local-global Lean In movement initiated by Face Book’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg. As the Council expanded, a second phase was initiated in order to accommodate the international diversity generated by growing globalization.

Phase #2: Creating a global mindset

Chattanooga was a small city with a modest number of international industries when its transformation into a global village was ramped up by Volkswagen’s presence. The new manufacturing plant attracted multiple international vendors at a time when little education was available for global engagement in schools, colleges, universities, or corporate human resources departments. A community-wide Global Leadership Class was launched to provide that education. Open to a self-selected group of professionals, the class was a year long course that began with the storytelling training strategies of the Women’s Council on Diversity. Those strategies were then deployed to maximize emotional intelligence and decision making skills. The sequential program developed new ways of communication, team building, leadership development, and problem solving.

Known as the Matrix Model Management System, the System was a local experiment with the cultural anthropological approach of structuralism, the school of thought developed by Claude Lévi-Strauss.

“According to Lévi-Strauss’s theories, universal patterns in cultural systems are products of the invariant structure of the human mind. Structure, for Lévi-Strauss, referred exclusively to mental structure, although he found evidence of such structure in his far-ranging analyses of kinship, patterns in mythology, art, religion, ritual, and culinary traditions.”³

The System’s structure mirrored that of Lévi-Strauss and can be applied strategically. The System incorporates not only universal themes and patterns, but also accounts for the intersectionality of diverse cultural elements in any given individual. The System’s structure is in a triangle format beginning with the lower right hand corner representing Geography-History, the left hand corner represents Family-DNA, and the peak of the triangle is the Belief System. All three points on the triangle are connected with universal societal themes including: government, education, and economics.

The System consisted of five steps including three matrix models that were applied sequentially. The emphasis was on communicating across cultural boundaries in the community and the workplace.

Step 1. The Culture/Communication Matrix.
Create a storytelling strategy for successful cross-cultural communication.
Step 2. The Comfort-Conflict Matrix. 
Manage comfort zones and decrease conflict. Avoid wasting time, energy, and morale while minimizing road blocks and avoiding culture clashes.
Step 3. The Wisdom Matrix.
Increase leadership expertise. Improve your own decision-making skills and the problem-solving skills of your team.
Step 4. Verbal Styles & Tips. 
Develop intercultural expertise in verbal communication that can travel across cultural boundaries.
Step 5. Nonverbal Styles & Tips. 
Develop intercultural expertise in nonverbal communication that can be understood across cultural boundaries.

Given the emphasis on building communication opportunities, the System began with the Communication Matrix which incorporates elements of this triangle into the powerful mode of storytelling. However, highly effective communication requires additional expertise, particularly in the area of emotional intelligence. One of the major issues in designing and implementing the System was the diverse belief systems, particularly religious beliefs. Deeply and passionately held, these beliefs could result in a fight-or-flight reaction to cultural differences. It was the goal of the System to give participants time to reflect on the appropriate responses. To achieve that expertise, the System added emotion metrics, a four-level measurement of emotional states, to the communication process.

By using the resulting Conflict-Comfort Matrix, the System instructed participants how to establish quantifiable emotional levels and by doing so, it was able to counteract emotional road blocks that prevented knowledge sharing in diverse teams. The Wisdom Matrix then takes participants through the elements of decision making as the natural next step to the acquired cross-communication expertise. The additional verbal and non-verbal communication training deepened that expertise, providing continual reinforcement of the global mindset and decision-making expertise needed in leadership positions.

Phase #3: Creating a cognitive technology

It was not until the System directly addressed the issue of unconscious bias that its neuro-communication process developed into a cognitive technology. This next phase of the project began in 2015, when a lone shooter, motivated by foreign terrorist propaganda, killed several individuals at two military installations in Chattanooga. The domestic terrorist attack was carried out by a local Muslim individual. The incident increased security awareness with the assistance of local law enforcement and the FBI. It also put a spotlight on the growing religious diversity of the city and the relative lack of multi-faith efforts to address hate and hate crimes.

In the following years, there was an increase in interfaith coalitions and of their public programming. The expansion of programs was a reflection of an emerging community-wide focus on religious diversity. The healthcare industry was in the forefront of these initiatives as medical colleges, hospitals, and hospital chaplains took advantage of religious diversity training. The expansion into new sectors of the community included the city of Chattanooga, which took the unusual step of creating a Council Against Hate with sub-committees focused on Faith & Culture, Business & Employers, Public Policy, Education, and Traditional Media & Social Media. Although still in its early stages, the Council Against Hate aspires to not only bring Chattanoogans of all faiths and ethnicities together to improve the quality of life and combat hate, it hopes to serve as a model for other cities to do the same.

The increased emphasis on religious diversity and tolerance prompted the publication of my book, Religious Diversity at Work. It was time to take religious literacy beyond the schools and community organizations targeted in the DIRN case study and into the workplace.

“As religion and faith expand their footprint locally and globally, they have a substantial impact on marketing and branding, on employee hiring, training, and retention, as well as vendor relations and customer service. In all these areas, the issues generated by religious diversity can be complex, potentially divisive, and sometimes threatening. Yet, businesses, s nonprofits (NGOs), and agencies that once preferred to ignore the influence of religion can no longer afford to do so. The challenge is for us to become educated, skillful, and adept in navigating religious diversity, so that we can anticipate the roadblocks, map our way to success, and work constructively with diverse religions.” [mfn]4[/mfn]

The terrorist incident not only motivated new sectors of the community, it also expanded the Matrix Model Management System’s original goal of improving cross-cultural communication. The System’s neuro-communication process was redesigned to include the unconscious bias that created a mindset conducive to hate. The new Un-Bias System now emphasized its decision making aspect. Using a blend of storytelling and emotion metrics, the Un-Bias cognitive technology generated opposing scenarios that led participants through a problem solving process for change making. The process was based on the structural theories of Claude Lévi-Strauss in which opposing beliefs are used to form new neuron structures.

“The basic framework of Lévi-Strauss’s theories was derived from the work of structural linguistics. From N.S. Trubetzkoy, the founder of structural linguistics, Lévi-Strauss developed his focus on unconscious infrastructure as well as an emphasis on the relationship between terms, rather than on terms as entities in themselves. From the work of Roman Jakobson, of the same school of linguistic thought, Lévi-Strauss adopted the so-called distinctive feature method of analysis, which postulates that an unconscious “metastructure” emerges through the human mental process of pairing opposites. In Lévi-Strauss’s system the human mind is viewed as a repository of a great variety of natural material, from which it selects pairs of elements that can be combined to form diverse structures. Pairs of oppositions can be separated into singular elements for use in forming new oppositions.”[mfn]5[/mfn]


Coupled with its expanded religious literacy efforts and its Council Against Hate, the Chattanooga case study introduced the context in which the Un-Bias cognitive technology can create the mindset for religious tolerance on a community-wide scale. As the culmination of the case studies of DIRN and Tulsa’s Say No to Hate Coalition, Chattanooga demonstrates the cognitive technology and context for addressing religion and tolerance. With its planned use of the internet to establish a broad reach, the Chattanooga model can help shape national and international initiatives promoting religious tolerance.


1 Religious Diversity at Work. p. 13
2 Quick Reference Religious Diversity Cards
3 Claude Lévi-Strauss
4 Religious Diversity at Work. p. 12
5 Claude Lévi-Strauss


Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Anthropologie structurale deux (1973, Structural Anthropology, Vol. II, trans. Monique Layton, 1976)

Lord, Albert B. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960.

Lord, Albert B. ”Oral and Early Literature” Singers and Tales in the 21st Century: The Legacies of Milman Parry and Albert Lord

Levine, Deborah J. Religious Diversity at Work. American Diversity Report.

Levine, Deborah J. Religious Diversity in our Schools. American Diversity Report.

Structuralism: ANTHROPOLOGY. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Levine, Deborah J. Matrix Model Management System. American Diversity Report.


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