This new scientific method caused a reversal of the role of science in relation to philosophy and theology. For centuries, theology had set the ground rules. Philosophy had to follow the lead of theology and science had to follow the lead of both theology and philosophy. Now the situation was reversed. The findings of science were setting the problems for philosophy which, in turn, was beginning to define new rules for theology. Theologians found themselves having to play the game of "catch up" in their work.
Theologians suddenly had to begin explaining their assumptions in light of the assumptions of science. This was true at the most basic level, because of the new cosmology which saw the operation of the universe in mechanical terms. If the world was running according to the laws of nature then how did God operate within the world? Were miracles possible? How did God intervene in a revelatory way? While many early scientists and philosophers (Galileo and Descartes among them) were faithful Christians and affirmed the validity of revelation, their method began to edge God out from acting within the everyday world. Reason and experience became the principle instrument of knowledge, not revelation. Revelation was "thrown under the bus."
In actuality, the natural sciences would not land the most powerful blow against theological inquiry; the so-called "social sciences" would. As the scientific method gained popularity, many began to believe that a new era had dawned upon humanity. (Think about the ominous assumptions human beings would have to hold about themselves in order to call their particular period of history the "Enlightenment".) People began to embrace the notion that human beings were getting better and better. The scientific method was helping men and women understand the world as it truly was. Modern medicine, which developed out of the new methodology, began to make great strides against illness and disease. Many came to believe that humanity had finally grown up and left superstition (classical expressions of religion) behind.
Since this new methodology had been so successful in helping to understand the world in which we live, maybe it could be employed in helping us to understand human beings in the societies in which they lived? Maybe the new method could help eradicate social ills in the same way it was helping medicine to abolish physical illness? Hence, the modern social sciences were born.
A representative of this enterprise was Auguste Comte-- pictured above (1798-1857). A French philosopher, he is considered to be the father of positivism (a child of empiricism) Comte was a pioneer in the field of sociology and an advocate of a "religion of humanity."
Comte divided history into three periods. The first period was the "theological" in which events were explained by the intervention and control of deities and spirits. The world was defined in supernatural terms. The second period was the "metaphysical" in which events were explained by such abstractions as causes, and "inner principles" and substances. These abstractions replaced supernatural explanations. The third period Comte called the "positive." This current period is the final and highest stage in humanity's development. It is characterized by scientific description which does not attempt to go beyond observable facts. Humanity, in this stage, gives up its desire to know the causes, the nature, and destiny of things. If there is anything beyond this world, it is of no concern. Human beings must confine their attention to this world alone. Positivism is the final stage of human thought and the task of science is to make the present world safe for humanity.
It is important to say that most contemporary social scientists would not accept the label "positivist." The early positivists were caught up in the moment and had grandiose visions of what the scientific method applied to society was going to accomplish. Most contemporary social scientists are more modest in such areas.
But Comte's analysis of history here is crucial because it was (and still is in many quarters) typical of an Enlightenment view of human history. Now that humanity has learned to trust in something "objective" (the scientific method) human beings can put away superstition built upon tradition and rely on reason, a faculty common to all human beings. In other words, humanity had finally growing up and did not need the traditional dogmas of Protestantism, and in particular, Catholicism, which were prejudiced and produced nothing but quarrels.