27/08/2012 19:59 BST | Updated 27/10/2012 06:12 BST

Border Crossings

The headline 'Mo-mentous' summed up the tabloid press verdict on the Olympics. The wide-eyed, victorious face of Muhammad 'Mo' Farah, a British Somali track athlete, was the defining picture, a stake through the heart of the anti-immigrant, racist politics of the extreme Right in Europe. Dracula will doubtless drag himself out of his coffin but it was a moment to be savoured.

Like a pint of newly poured Guinness, the media froth coming off the Games has taken a long time to settle. Can the Paralympics do for physical disability what the Olympics may have done, at least temporarily, for perceptions of immigrants and people of other faiths? Perhaps. It will certainly enhance the spirituality of sport, the aura of the Games.

Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra playing at the Proms in London during the Olympic Games, for me, was part of that aura, almost a counterpoint. Though the Olympic movement is about individual competition it is often portrayed as a competition in sporting prowess between nations. Yet there could be nothing less competitive than the Arab-Israeli harmony that lies at the heart of Barenboim's vision and his orchestra's performance of the Beethoven symphonies.

Whether in Olympic competition or extraordinary harmony, in sport or in music, it is hard not to glimpse the spiritual depths. So where is faith and religion in all this?

We still retain a picture of religion that highlights institutions and isms: Judaism, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism. But, at least in Britain, there are large numbers of people who believe in God, an afterlife, even angels, who do not put their hand up as being "religious": there is a "yes" to spirituality but a "no" to religion. This is not what secular usually means - though that is the most likely designation of Britain.

This "yes" to spirituality spills out into the transcendence that music can convey, into the rituals and communal identities of sport, and into the great outpourings of grief, the floral displays that greet unexpected death, nowhere more powerfully illustrated as in the death of Princess Diana. But it recurs on a smaller scale for murdered children and the victims of traffic accidents. It is as if we have a sense of awe and reverence that does not easily find a home in institutional religion anymore.

Competition can encompass this dimension as well as co-operation. The Holy Qur'an describes the purpose of diversity, why there are the different "nations and tribes" - which represent different religions as - so that we can "know each other and vie with each other in good works". The meaning of that "knowing", Muslim scholars point out, is profoundly co-operative : friendship, learning more about God together, and working together for the Common Good.

There is no doubt that these OIympics have brought nations together, taken new steps, and forged bonds of friendship. Hijabs are now permitted. At last efforts at achieving gender equality are paying off with women in all the 204 national teams. China's rise to dominance as a sporting nation is now paralleling its economic power and size. Chinese and American athletes occupied neighbouring lanes and stood on the same podium. China has come a long way. The famous Eric Liddell, the 'Flying Scotsman' of the 1924 Paris Olympics and an evangelical Christian, who so personified the Olympic spirit, was born and died in China, was once claimed as China's first gold medallist.

Danny Boyle's symbolism in the opening ceremony was evocative. The young athletes' torches, lighting the many torches of the different nations, that rose and united in one giant flame reminded me of nothing so much as Easter Vigil mass when parishioners hand on the light from the Easter candle until the darkened church is ablaze with flickering candle light. The Olympic symbolism was different: the many individual flames combined together to create a single burning symbol of the unity of the human family in all its diversity. It was liturgy for an age that rejects religion, yet carrying the most basic of spiritual messages about a God-given human destiny.

So is sport becoming a new religion? Well, it is certainly a container for much diverted or suppressed religion, spirituality and ritual. Racism on the football pitch falls into the same category as racism from the pulpit. But it needs the rich texture of religious traditions and their symbolic, sacramental power, water, light, flame to empower it as a vehicle of human hope and aspiration.

The fact is we all come from a particular tradition, have been formed by it, and have its wisdom to draw on. We all have our rituals and symbols that allow us to honour that most basic of human rights, the right to meaning. Eric Liddell was no exception.

Mr Bean is the contemporary icon of a Britain's ability to laugh at itself, at its sententious Chariots of Fire. But Harold Abrahams running to combat anti-semitism, and Liddell, who refused to compete on a Sunday because of his faith, surface our religious traditions that lie beneath. As he says to his sister Jenny Liddell in Hugh Hudson's movie: "I believe God made me for a purpose but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure". That is not a pleasure exclusive to Christians, to musicians or to sports men and women. It is the pleasure at the heart of our human dignity.