Britain's former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has won the 2016 Templeton Prize, worth £1.1m ($1.5m), for his efforts in helping young people stay away from the message of extremists by encouraging religions to connect with them.

The US-based John Templeton Foundation said Sacks, 67, was ahead of his time with his central message of respect for all faiths and his argument that only by recognising the values of each of them could violence and terrorism be countered. The prize, awarded to an individual who has made "exceptional contributions to affirming life's spiritual dimension", is one of the world's biggest. Sacks said he was "absolutely knocked sideways" to have won.

"It just felt very thrilling and so my wife and I did a little dance together," he said in an interview. "Not something we do that often, but it was lovely."

As Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Sacks was the leading spokesman for British Jews from 1991 until 2013, leading what many considered to be the revitalisation of Britain's Jewish community. The Templeton Foundation praised his work tackling the spread of religious violence, which he argued had been sparked by Western secularisation that had failed to address young people's search for meaning, belonging and identity.

"Today the most powerful religious voices are coming from the extremes and I think that is terribly dangerous. They are speaking to young idealistic kids and turning them into murderers and we can't sit still and just let that happen," Sacks said.

"I think religious leaders have to give the same power and passion to the forces of reconciliation, compassion, forgiveness, love, friendship across the boundaries between faiths.

"We really need to connect young people to the sources of positive idealism and I am afraid those voices have tended to be screened out by what I see as quite a self-indulgent secular culture of the west."

Sacks said he would spend the prize money to further his work reaching out to young people of all faiths, with a particular focus on social media.

"I have tried to take my message more global, I have tried to encourage conversation across the borders between faiths, I have tried to encourage young people to feel that sense of religious altruism, that leads them to identify faith with bringing blessings to the world both to those of my faith and to those of other faiths," he said.

Sacks joins a list of 45 former winners that includes South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. Last year's winner was Canadian Jean Vanier, who launched an international network of communities for people with learning difficulties.