Last week’s post about WEIRD values (that’s “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic”) drew a number of comments. Readers focused on the implications for the West’s relations with the Muslim world. It’s worth pointing out, though, that the clash is not limited to Muslim-majority societies. Most of the world is non-WEIRD. Events is Russia last week demonstrate what I mean.

By now, most readers are familiar with Pussy Riot, the feminist punk band that stormed the main altar of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral to protest collusion between the Russian Orthodox Church and President Vladimir Putin. Three members of the band were convicted of “hooliganism” and sentenced to two years in prison. Last week, authorities released one of the three on appeal , in response to evidence that she had not, in fact, participated in the cathedral protest. The other two band members continue to serve their sentences.

In the West, Pussy Riot has become a cause célèbre, with human rights groups protesting the authoritarianism in Putin’s Russia. This is not surprising. From a Western perspective, the band’s punishment seems unduly harsh. Yes, Pussy Riot insulted a place of worship – one with important, and sad, historical associations – but no one was harmed. At most, the members should have been fined for a misdemeanor and let go. Within Russia, however, support for Pussy Riot is remarkably low. Although some Russians believe the band members made a valid point about church corruption and have served enough time, the large majority of Russians apparently believes the sentences were appropriate, even too lenient. Reuters reports that a poll “by the independent Levada centre found 35 percent of Russians believe the two-year sentences were appropriate, while 34 percent said they were too lenient and only 14 percent said they were excessive.”

One can dismiss these results. Maybe people are just saying what they think the pollsters want to hear. It’s possible, though, that the poll reflects what Russians actually believe. It’s possible, in other words, that Russia genuinely has a non-WEIRD value system, one in which the ethics of community and divinity take precedence over the WEIRD ethic of autonomy and expression. When Putin says, regarding the prison sentences, “It is right that [the members of Pussy Riot] were arrested and it was right that the court took this decision because you cannot undermine the fundamental morals and values to destroy the country,” he may in fact reflect consensus public opinion.

Where does this leave us? It seems to me that there are three possibilities. The first is that the WEIRD value system will eventually dominate the others worldwide. There’s some evidence for this. WEIRD culture has a lot going for it, and America projects it around the world relentlessly, through movies, advertising, the Internet, and so on. The second is that Western culture will become less WEIRD. This could happen, too. Western Europe already restricts religiously offensive speech. Moreover, as one of the commentators pointed out, there are already plenty of Westerners who do not share WEIRD values; the members of conservative religious traditions, for example. The final possibility is that the WEIRD and non-WEIRD worlds will continue to face off against one another for the foreseeable future, with inevitable clashes and occasional compromises. We’ll see.

Mark Movsesian is Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University.

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