When John M. Templeton first envisioned instituting an international prize for progress in religion, he thought of it as beginning after his death, going just to Christians, and awarding a substantial amount of money.

The multimillionaire investment counselor is still alive and his Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion is now in its 11th year.

It also does not go just to Christians.

But it is, as he had originally planned, big--the largest annual cash prize, in fact, in any field in the world, according to the foundation.

The foundation announced Wednesday in Washington that it is awarding this year's prize of 110,000 British pounds, or about $170,000, to exiled Soviet novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The award's international panel of eight judges cited the writer as "a pioneer in the renaissance of religion in atheistic nations."

Solzhenitsyn is the author of such works as "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," "Cancer Ward," and "The Gulag Archipelago." Materials supplied by the foundation said he documented his "religious pilgrimage" in his writings. They called the writer, a Russian Orthodox Christian who survived Soviet labor camps and then wrote his knowledge into novels condemning the Soviet system, "a symbol of the vitality of the Orthodox tradition of spirituality."

The announcement was made by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), one of the award judges, at a press conference at the Capitol with foundation officials.

He described Solzhenitsyn as a modern-day Job who experienced and expressed the "anguish of a whole society."

Solzhenitsyn will be presented the prize at a ceremony in London on May 10.

Solzhenitsyn, who has been living in near seclusion in New England, was invited to the Washington announcement but did not come.

He sent a brief statement describing the world as "spiritually unsteady" and attacking the U.S. Supreme Court ban on prayer in public schools. He called the ban "not much more tolerable than in communist countries, only in that it lacks the hammering-in of atheism."

The writer's statement was read by the Tennessee-born Templeton, 70, a Presbyterian elder and chairman of the board of trustees of the Princeton Theological Seminary.

Templeton said in an interview Wednesday that he first thought of the religion prize in the 1950s.

He had planned to institute it after his death, he said, but then decided that "the need was so great, to postpone it was a mistake." The purpose is "to inspire" others hearing about the recipients, he said.

Previous winners have included Mother Teresa of Calcutta, founder of the Missionaries of Charity, the first recipient; Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the Modern Hospice Movement in England; and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, former president of India. Last year, the prize went to evangelist Billy Graham.

The cash prize is deliberately set higher than other prizes, Templeton said. Progress in science traditionally has been rewarded and recognized, he said, but "more important things are going on in religion."

"I was convinced that so many people were neglecting religion," he said.

"It came to me after a long meditation that a prize which would be the world's largest prize would call attention to the wonderful new things that are being done in every religion."

Templeton said he planned originally to limit the prize to Christians, but decided that was too restrictive.

"I talked to a lot of people, and we concluded that God created all of us," he said.

"No human being will ever know more than one percent of the reality of God. If no Christian will know more than one percent, then surely there's plenty of room for other religions to have insights on the creator."

The judges for this year's award are from a wide religious spectrum. Hatch is a Mormon. Others included the Most Rev. Stuart Blanch, archbishop of York; Dr. Nagendra Singh, a Hindu and member of the International Court of Justice at the Hague; and the Dalai Lama, Buddhist religious leader of Tibet.